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Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann explains why lawmakers have returned to the Capitol in an effort to strip spending authority over $1.25 billion in federal coronavirus stimulus money from Gov. Tate Reeves, during a press briefing attended by both House and Senate leadership including Speaker Philip Gunn, right, at the statehouse in Jackson, Miss., Friday, May 1, 2020. All lawmakers followed social distancing protocol during the briefing including wearing face masks. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

Analysis: Pandemic cash causes power clash in Mississippi

EMILY WAGSTER PETTUS

Mississippi Republican Gov. Tate Reeves found few defenders when state lawmakers returned to the Capitol on Friday to take control of more than a billion dollars the federal government is sending the state for response to the coronavirus pandemic.

The Mississippi Constitution specifies that the Legislature has the power to make budget decisions. However, Reeves said a 40-year-old state law gives the governor some spending authority during emergencies.

“The governor says that by letting him spend the money, he can get where it needs to go more quickly,” Republican House Speaker Philip Gunn said. “That makes for a good soundbite. But what voice does that give the citizens in that decision making process?”

Reeves was already seeking a consulting firm to manage Mississippi’s $1.25 billion share of a massive federal relief package, and the firm would be paid a portion of the money for its work. Republican Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann said the quick deadline on the governor’s consultant search created an urgent need for legislators to assert control over the money on behalf of Mississippi citizens.

Legislators returned to the Capitol for the first time since mid-March, when their session was put on hold because of the pandemic. They quickly voted to set most of the coronavirus money into a fund that would go through the normal budget-making process — legislators make decisions, and the governor either signs or vetoes those.

“Following a constitution is real important,” Hosemann said. “In times like this when we are so challenged by tornadoes and floods and pandemics, the rock that we hang on is the Constitution.”

This is not a partisan dispute. Republicans hold wide majorities in the state House and Senate.

The House vote Friday was 113-0, with seven representatives absent and two seats vacant. The Senate vote was 48-2, with one senator absent and one voting “present,” which counts neither for nor against the bill. The two “no” votes were Republicans Chris McDaniel of Ellisville and Melanie Sojourner of Natchez.

A visibly angry Reeves said legislators were limiting his ability to quickly get money where it’s needed during the pandemic. He talked about emergency needs, like providing protective medical equipment to health care providers. He also talked about people who had lost their jobs.

But, Hosemann and Gunn both said that the money in question is separate from supplemental payments for unemployment benefits that the federal government is providing through July. And they said they have spoken multiple times to state agency leaders about their budget needs related to the pandemic. The bill that passed Friday leaves $100 million of federal money in a fund that can be used during the current state budget year, which ends June 30.

Days before lawmakers returned to the Capitol, Reeves talked about long-term priorities for the federal money, including job training programs for adults and distance learning programs for children in homes with little or no access to technology.

Reeves became governor in January, after serving the previous eight years as lieutenant governor and the eight years before that as state treasurer.

As treasurer in 2006, Reeves was chairman of the board of the Mississippi Health Care Trust Fund, which holds millions of dollars the state receives each year from a settlement of the state’s lawsuit against tobacco companies. A trial court judge had diverted a portion of the annual payments to Partnership for a Healthy Mississippi, a nonprofit group that did advertising and activities aimed at preventing young people from smoking.

A dispute over control of the tobacco settlement money went to the Mississippi Supreme Court, with Reeves saying all the tobacco settlement money should go through the normal budget process. Justices agreed, saying unequivocally said the legislative branch has the power of the purse.

» EMILY WAGSTER PETTUS has covered Mississippi government and politics since 1994. Follow her on Twitter: http://twitter.com/EWagsterPettus.

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