JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Mississippi lawmakers and Gov. Tate Reeves still have to make big decisions about spending most of the $1.25 billion that the federal government is sending the state for coronavirus relief.
After ending their feud over who has power to spend the money, the Republican governor and the Legislature worked efficiently last week to create a plan to use $300 million for small business grants.
“My priority from day one has been the quick release of these funds and getting back to the people who need it,” Reeves said during a news conference Thursday, hours after legislators approved the grant program in a late-night session.
Republicans hold a three-fifths supermajority in the Mississippi House and the Senate. While Democrats have had few prominent roles in writing important legislation in recent years, some were deeply involved in creating the grant program for businesses. The proposal passed with broad bipartisan support.
Reeves and legislators will face long list of requests as they consider how to spend the additional federal money.
Cities and counties, for example, have incurred extra expenses because of the coronavirus pandemic, with police officers and sheriff's deputies patrolling places like parks and beaches to ensure that large crowds are not congregating.
Educators and others spoke at the Capitol last week about the need to expand high-speed internet service, particularly in rural areas where coverage is spotty or nonexistent.
Reeves said he would like to use some of the money to replenish the state fund that pays for unemployment benefits. He also said he wants to spend some of the relief money to help the tourism industry.
“Whether you’re a bed-and-breakfast in Natchez or a major casino on the coast, the shutdown has significantly changed your business outlook, it has significantly changed your revenue, and it has significantly impacted your employees," he said.
The $300 million small business grant program is divided into two parts. One has $60 million to provide $2,000 grants for businesses that were forced to closed by government orders, including barbershops, salons, dance studios, gyms and child care centers.
Reeves said many barbers and salon operators were not able to collect unemployment benefits and did not receive aid from the federal Paycheck Protection Program. Speaking of the state grants, Reeves said: “I think we’ve got to make sure that we are getting monies in the hands of those who were most affected that have not been helped by other programs.”
The small business program has $240 million for grants ranging from $1,500 to $25,000 to cover expenses for virus response. For the first 21 days, the only applications considered would be from businesses that did not receive aid from the federal Paycheck Protection Program. And for the first 60 days, $40 million of this money would be reserved for minority-owned businesses.
Both parts of the grant program are for businesses that existed before March 1 and have 50 or fewer employees. The U.S. Treasury Department has issued rules about how the federal money can be spent. The grants can cover expenses that businesses face because of the coronavirus pandemic — restaurants that have to buy masks for their employees, for example. The grants cannot be used to make up for businesses' lost profits.
Mississippi Development Authority, the state agency that promotes job creation and tourism, will handle the applications for the $1,500 to $25,000 grants, and officials say they hope the application process will be simple.
The governor said he wants to get money into people's hands soon.
“It will never happen as quick as I’d like,” Reeves said. “But I know that we’re through the first days of the negotiating process, I’m grateful to everyone who got involved in this, for working together and get this done for the people of Mississippi.”
Emily Wagster Pettus has covered Mississippi government and politics since 1994. Follow her on Twitter: http://twitter.com/EWagsterPettus.