A battle over who controls $1.15 billion in federal funds dedicated to COVID-19 relief could be a critical early test of Gov. Tate Reeves.
Legislative leaders have already acted, meeting for three hours on Friday. The Legislature amended an existing bill to put them in charge of how to allocate most of the $1.25 billion in federal funds the state has received from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.
The amended bill passed both chambers with little resistance, unanimously in the House and with only two no votes in the Senate. State senators Chris McDaniel, R-Ellisville, and Melanie Sojourner, R-Natchez, voted against the measure.
While Reeves hasn’t explicitly said he’ll veto the bill, his statements seem to indicate that he’ll likely utilize his veto pen for the first time during his term. His decision is due by Thursday and if he chooses not to sign it, the bill will become law by default.
Both chambers would need a two-thirds majority to override a potential veto, which is not a heavy lift owing to the bipartisan support given to Friday’s amendment.
He said that allowing the Legislature to dole out the money will result in delays because of the way the legislative process works.
Reeves, a former two-term lieutenant governor, said the best-case scenario for issuing the funds to needy Mississippians would be July if the Legislature moves at lightning speed.
“The legislative branch is built upon the notion of a deliberative process of discussion, debate, and caution,” Reeves said in a post on Facebook. “The very foundation is the idea that it is better to do nothing and produce no harm than to act quickly and make a mistake. That’s a noble process. It does not work in distributing emergency funds in an ever-changing environment.”
“We don’t have time for committee meetings. We don’t have time for committee hearings. We don’t have time for politicians to cut deals. The virus and unemployment crisis are here now. Mississippians need help now.”
The CARES Act passed by Congress in March and provides $2.2 trillion for individuals and businesses to help in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Legislative leaders say that they, and not the governor, should have ultimate authority over how to spend the $1.15 billion and have the authority of the state’s constitution behind them.
“Gov. Reeves has said his goal was to get the Coronavirus relief funds to the people without delay and he didn’t want a political battle,” said House Speaker Philip Gunn at a news conference Friday. “We agree. What we’re doing here today isn’t about politics, but about preserving the people’s voice in government."
The existing bill they amended, Senate Bill 2772, was already passed by the Senate and was written originally to allow appropriators to shift money from different funds (such as the general fund and the budget contingency fund). The amendment will remove $7.5 million from the Budget Contingency Fund so they won’t intermingle with the federal relief funds.
The amendment also will move $1.15 billion from the Department of Finance and Administration’s CARES ACT COVID-19 fund to the Budget Contingency Fund, leaving $100 million in the DFA COVID-19 fund to be used for emergency situations at the discretion of the governor.
“The framers of our constitution made sure that the people, through their legislators, would have a voice in how their taxpayer money was spent,” Gunn said. “They did not give us government by one man. We reject the notion that the government by the people can’t deal with emergency situations. We reject any attempts to characterize what we’re doing here today as a political battle or a power grab.”