Thursday, April 30, 2020
Gov. Tate Reeves claimed the authority today to appropriate $1.25 billion in federal CARES Act funds through “state statute which addresses all federal money in an emergency situation.” His determination to control the funds sets the stage for the first major crisis between the Republican governor and the Republican-controlled Legislature, which will reconvene weeks ahead of its scheduled return on May 1 at 1 p.m. to wrest control of the funds back into the hands of the legislative branch of Mississippi government.
“I don't really give a damn who is in charge of this money,” Reeves said at his daily presser, insisting that his only priority was swift delivery of relief to Mississippians. “The bottom line is we can't allow politics and bureaucracy to cost Mississippians the money that they so badly need.”
Pressed by the Jackson Free Press on whether this meant he would be willing to relinquish the funds to the Legislature, however, Reeves quickly found a damn to give. “It is incredibly important that, in federal and state emergencies in disasters, we as the executive branch of government have to have the ability to do what a chief executive does, which is execute the laws that have been passed by the legislature,” he said.
Reeves then explained that one of those laws explicitly provides him with the power to appropriate emergency relief, and he intends to use it.
The governor’s interpretation of the law directly contradicts that of Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann, who told the Jackson Free Press in a Wednesday interview that “the Senate and the House will control what the money is to be spent on—whether there would be incentives, for example.” He added that “any statutory change would have to come from the Senate and the House. It cannot come from an unelected body,” Hosemann said, referring to the governor’s Restart Mississippi advisory board.
Hosemann can expect support from across the aisle when the Legislature reconvenes Friday, 1 p.m. Senate Minority Leader Derrick Simmons, D-Greenville, told the Jackson Free Press today that conversations across party lines preceded the decision to return and lay claim to spending authority on CARES Act funds.
“I think it’s bipartisan that the $1.25 billion coming to the state of Mississippi should be managed by the Legislature. I don’t think the Legislature wants to give up its authority to appropriate funds,” he said in the interview.
Reeves avoided explicitly saying he would veto any attempts to change the emergency powers in Mississippi’s state law, but swore to “fight to get money to the people of Mississippi, as quickly as possible, the ones who absolutely need it, the 170,000 Mississippians who have lost their jobs, the small business owners, many of whom didn't get the (Paycheck Protection Program) because they didn't qualify.”
The governor warned of the dangers of challenging the statute that he says provides him the latitude to spend the relief money.
“If this legislation is overturned, and it limits the executive's authority during a time of emergency, then what that means is every time there's a tornado, we'll be calling a special session in the Legislature,” Reeves argued. “Every single time there is a hurricane, we'll be calling a special session of the Legislature. If the virus comes back in the fall, we'll be calling a special session of the Legislature.”
The governor declined to answer whether his Restart Mississippi advisory board’s deliberations would be sent through the Legislature, telling the Jackson Free Press only that “we are under the impression that we will be working with the Legislature to develop a plan long-term for these monies.”
Asked if the private nature of Restart Mississippi’s activities would mean it registers as a lobbyist organization, Reeves’ answer was simpler: “No.”
State intern Julian Mills contributed to this report. Read the JFP’s coverage of COVID-19 at jacksonfreepress.com/covid19. Get more details on preventive measures here. Email state reporter Nick Judin, who is covering COVID-19 in Mississippi, at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @nickjudin.