TUPELO • House Speaker Philip Gunn on Monday reiterated his support for a special legislative session to pass a medical marijuana program and dole out federal relief funds to Mississippi hospitals dealing with staffing shortages.
While speaking to the Daily Journal’s editorial board, the Republican leader of the House of Representatives also said he has requested Republican Gov. Tate Reeves call lawmakers back into a special session to approve death benefit payments for first responders who die of COVID-19 and appropriate funds for shelters that help survivors of domestic violence.
The third-term speaker said the most important issue in the state right now is hospitals, some of which he has visited, that are struggling to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic.
“As I traveled to those hospitals, I asked the question, ‘What is your number one need?’ They all indicated staffing,” Gunn said. “We need more nurses. We need more health care workers. We can create more ICU beds, but we don’t have the people to staff them.”
Gunn said some House members have been working on a rough draft of the bill, which would set aside roughly $50 million in federal funds for hospitals. The bill includes some type of formula that would dole out the dollars partially based on the number of COVID-19 patients that a hospital has treated.
For hospitals to use the program, any workers they hire with the funds would have to sign a contract to work for a state hospital within a set period of time.
For the first responder bill, Gunn said that the state currently gives $100,000 to the families of first responders who have died in the line of duty. The Legislature would simply amend the current law to add dying from COVID-19 as a reason for families to receive the benefits.
The speaker estimated that there were between 30 to 40 first responders who have died from COVID-19, and that the amendment dealing with the virus would contain a deadline for the funds to expire.
For the domestic violence and child abuse centers, which are overseen by the Mississippi State Department of Health, Gunn estimates that it would cost around $11 million per year to fund the shelters.
“A lot of the funding coming to our shelters comes from federal prosecutions,” Gunn said. “Because of the pandemic, the prosecutions have slowed down.”
Lawmakers from both legislative chambers have largely agreed to a proposal for a medical marijuana program, though some minor details are still being tweaked behind closed doors.
The current draft, which was obtained by the Daily Journal, enacts sales and excise taxes, allows for opt-out provisions for local governments and contains a tiered licensing structure for cultivating and processing facilities.
Gunn and Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann announced some of the details of their special session proposals at a legislative budget proposal hearing last month.
The governor is the only person who has the power to call lawmakers back to the state Capitol before its regularly scheduled session, and he has the power to set the agenda.
Reeves thus far has kept details of the special session close to the chest, and as of Monday afternoon, did not have any type of update.
“No announcement is expected today,” said Bailey Martin, Reeves' press secretary.