TUPELO • All of the state lawmakers from Northeast Mississippi on Friday voted to approve a bill that removes Republican Gov. Tate Reeves’ power to be the sole person responsible for disbursing more than a billion dollars in federal COVID-19 relief funds.
The area legislators, nearly all of which are Republican, backed a proposal by House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, and Republican Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann, to have the Legislature assert control in what they view as $1.25 billion from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funds that have not been specifically designated for one group or person to spend.
The Mississippi House of Representatives first amended Senate Bill 2772 to move $1.15 billion in the federal relief funds to a budget contingency fund. The money in this fund cannot be spent without approval from the Legislature. The rest of the money will be placed in a separate fund for state agencies to utilize for immediate needs related to COVID-19.
“I support the Legislature’s position on this,” state Rep. Shane Aguirre, R-Tupelo, said. “The Constitution is pretty clear that the Legislature has the ultimate authority to appropriate funds.”
The Mississippi House of Representatives ultimately voted to approve the legislation 112-0. In the state Senate, two senators voted against the bill and one senator voted present. None of the three senators represent districts in north Mississippi.
Multiple legislators told the Daily Journal Friday evening that they ultimately voted for the measure because they believed the Legislature ultimately has the sole power to appropriate funds the state receives.
“The governor has admirably managed this unprecedented crisis,” State Sen. Nicole Boyd, R-Oxford, said. “However, it’s now time for the Legislature to get back to work and exercise its constitutional duties including the duty to appropriate the CARES Act funds that were not specifically designated. The Legislature is the people’s voice and nowhere is that voice more important than in our constitutional responsibility to appropriate funding.”
Similarly, state Sen. Chad McMahan, R-Guntown, told the Daily Journal that he viewed his decision as “following the law.” He said if the federal bill passed by Congress specifically said a state governor had the sole ability to spend the funds, then he would have no issues with Reeves spending the money. However, he said the money was sent directly to Mississippi and believes the Legislature has a right to appropriate the funds.
In a press conference Friday afternoon, Reeves said that the governor should be the main person responsible for spending relief funds during an emergency and that “you cannot manage an emergency by committee.”
Now that the bill has been passed by both houses of the Legislature, the governor could veto the bill. If Reeves vetoes the bill, legislators could vote to override the veto. Reeves would not say whether or not he planned to veto the bill.
State Sen. Kathy Chism, R-New Albany, told the Daily Journal that she appreciated the governor’s work during the pandemic, but ultimately believes that ability to appropriate funds is vested in the legislative branch. Chism and Aguirre both said that they would more than likely vote to override the governor’s veto if they had to.
Hosemann and Gunn had announced earlier that the Legislature would return to Jackson on May 18. However, they ultimately decided to come back to the Capitol earlier to vote on the bill related to the CARES Act funds.