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Mississippi leaders clash over spending virus relief money

(AP) — The Mississippi Legislature will restart its session Friday as top lawmakers and Gov. Tate Reeves argue over who has power to spend more than a billion dollars the federal government is sending the state to respond to the coronavirus pandemic.
Republicans who lead the House and Senate say the Mississippi Constitution gives spending authority to the Legislature. But Reeves, a Republican, says a state law enacted decades ago gives the governor some spending power during emergencies.
The conflict could play out in the next several days as legislators return to the Capitol to resume their session that’s been on hold since mid-March because of the pandemic.
“We can’t allow politics and bureaucracy to cost Mississippians the money that they so badly need,” Reeves said during a news conference Thursday.
Mississippi is receiving $1.25 billion from a federal relief package already approved by Congress, with some of it designated for the Health Department. If more federal money is approved in the future, that could also be affected by the fight over spending power.
On Wednesday, Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann and House Speaker Philip Gunn had announced earlier this week that the Legislature would return to the Capitol on May 18, but plans changed because of the money fight. They sent a letter to the acting director of the state Department of Finance and Administration, Liz Welch, telling her to put the $1.25 billion on hold.
“This letter is to inform you the Mississippi Legislature will be in session shortly to plan the constitutional appropriation of these funds to address Mississippi’s immediate and future needs in responding to the COVID-19 health and economic crisis,” it said.
Mississippi is not alone in clashes among top elected officials. In neighboring Louisiana, Republican state lawmakers are considering putting limits on Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards’s emergency decision-making powers amid frustration over his extension of a stay-at-home order in one of the states hardest hit by the virus.
Reeves has said he plans to reopen Mississippi’s economy in steps. In response to questions during a news conference Thursday, Reeves said it’s possible Mississippi casinos could reopen before Memorial Day, which kicks off the summer tourist season. But, he said there will be requirements for social distancing and there probably will be limits on card games to try to mitigate the spread of the virus.
The U.S. is seeing its highest unemployment since the Great Depression. Mississippi processed 201,890 claims for unemployment benefits between March 14 and the week that ended Saturday, according to figures released Thursday by the U.S. Employment and Training Administration.
The agency said 35,843 of the claims in Mississippi were made during the most recent week of the reporting period, down 3% from the previous week. Reeves has said the state typically receives fewer than 1,000 unemployment claims a week.
Reeves eased some business restrictions this week, allowing some to reopen with limits on how many customers may be present.
The state Health Department said Thursday that Mississippi had at least 6,815 confirmed cases and 261 deaths from the coronavirus as of Wednesday evening. That was an increase of 246 cases and 11 deaths from the previous day. The state’s population is about 3 million.
The number of infections is thought to be far higher because many people have not been tested, and studies suggest people can be infected with the virus without feeling sick. For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For others, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, the highly contagious virus can cause severe symptoms and be fatal.
The Health Department said Thursday at least 66,000 coronavirus tests had been done in Mississippi. The department did not release the number of cases confirmed at long-term care facilities such as nursing homes. Its website said the numbers would return Friday.
The governor’s “safer at home” order started Monday, replacing a stricter stay-at-home order that was in place for more than three weeks. The new order remains in effect until the morning of May 11. In addition to letting more businesses reopen, it allows physicians to start offering some services that had been limited in recent weeks. Restaurants are still restricted to carry-out or delivery. Barber shops, salons, tattoo parlors and entertainment venues such as movie theaters remain closed. Gatherings of 10 or more people are still banned.