Speaker Philip Gunn

Mississippi House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton

House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, sat down with the Daily Journal editorial board and outlined the proposed agenda for a special session he and other legislative leaders have asked Gov. Tate Reeves to call.

The most obvious item is to pass a medical marijuana program, which has been the topic of much news and editorial coverage. An agreement between the House and Senate has been reached for some time, and legislative leaders have told Reeves as much. But Reeves remains on the sidelines, quietly ignoring pressure to call a special session — something he pledged he would do once lawmakers had a proposed bill.

But there are other — and, one could argue, more important — items that Gunn and legislative leaders want addressed:

  • Creating a health care worker retention program to help with nursing shortages due to COVID-19.
  • Temporarily extending death benefits to families of first responders who died from COVID-19.
  • Providing temporary funding for domestic violence and related shelters that have seen a drop in funding due to COVID-19.

These items would use existing federal funds earmarked for COVID-19-related spending. The state currently has approximately $1.8 billion in funds available. The total cost of the three programs outlined above would be less than $70 million, Gunn said.

Furthermore, these three bills address immediate and critical needs facing our state. While lawmakers could wait until the regular session, doing so would cause an additional six months before relief could come. In some cases, that  could be too late.

Hospitals have already started shuttering services and restricting patient admissions due to a nursing shortage. While Reeves and the federal government have provided some relief, the plan worked out with House and Senate leaders was designed in conjunction with hospitals throughout the state.

Between 30 and 40 first responders have died due to COVID-19. In some cases, those families are struggling financially. By mirroring what the federal government did last year under the Trump administration, Mississippi could provide $100,000 each in death benefits to any family of a first responder who dies from COVID-19 through the end of the year.

And — finally — one largely overlooked victim of this pandemic has been the shelters that offer refuge to victims of domestic abuse and sex trafficking. While the number of incidents of domestic abuse have climbed, funding has decreased. This is because funding for these shelters is tied to prosecutions, the resulting fines and fees going to the shelters. But with criminal prosecutions down across the board, these shelters are running out of money. The state could provide them one year of funding using the federal dollars.

Reeves is the only one absent in these discussions. He has sought to extend the state of emergency to give his office wide latitude in addressing certain items, but that is not enough.

The governor's office is not designed to be a dictatorship. It is time for Reeves to call the Legislature into special session and address at least these four measures. It could be done in a day. The cost would be minimal; the impact could be great.

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