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Mississippi Legislature votes for business grants amid virus

JACKSON (AP) — Mississippi legislators voted late Wednesday to create grant programs for small businesses hurt by the coronavirus pandemic, using some of the $1.25 billion in relief money that the federal government is sending the state.

The total price tag for the grants would be $300 million.

If Gov. Tate Reeves signs the proposal into law, a $60 million program would provide $2,000 grants for businesses that were forced to closed by government orders and for child care centers.

The other $240 million would be for grants ranging from $1,500 to $25,000. For the first 21 days, the only applications considered would be from businesses that did not receive aid from the federal Paycheck Protection Program.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Josh Harkins said businesses will have to follow guidelines from the U.S. Treasury Department on using the money.

“The state’s on the hook for any monies that are misspent,” said Harkins, a Republican from Brandon.

The programs would be for businesses that existed before March 1 and have 50 or fewer employees. Businesses that work in partisan politics or in lobbying are not eligible to apply.

Reeves has previously said he wants to use some of the federal relief money to help businesses. He feuded with fellow Republicans who lead the Legislature over who has the power to spend the federal money. Legislators said the state constitution gives them spending power, while Reeves said a 40-year-old state law gives the governor some spending power during emergencies.

Reeves eventually did an about-face and said legislators could have a say in spending the federal relief money, but he wanted to quickly help businesses.

Hours before the legislative debate on Wednesday, Reeves announced that as of June 1, landlords can again start evicting tenants. He suspended evictions several weeks ago because people were losing jobs during the pandemic.

“I want to give everyone enough time for people to get the money that they need together to make a rent payment if you have fallen behind,” Reeves said.

Although unemployment remains high, Reeves has been gradually allowing businesses to reopen, including restaurants, barbershops and hair salons. He said he hopes the two-month suspension has helped people get through the “most painful time.”

“We have to recognize that housing doesn’t just happen and it doesn’t grow on trees and we cannot suspend evictions forever,” Reeves said.

Reeves’s announcement about evictions came a day after the state Public Service Commission said it is extending its order that bans utilities from cutting off customers’ water, sewer, electricity and gas services for nonpayment. The two-month order had been set to expire this week, and it was extended until May 26. The commission said customers who owe money should arrange to make payments.

Mississippi legislators on Wednesday also heard from state education leaders about challenges that schools, community colleges and universities have faced since in-person classes were suspended in mid-March because of the pandemic.

State Superintendent of Education Carey Wright said some schools were better prepared than others to offer online classes. She said parts of the state lack high-speed internet access, some students have no access to computers and others must share devices with others in their family.

“There has never been a better opportunity for this state to address the inequities that exist,” Wright said.

With the possibility that school will be disrupted by another outbreak of COVID-19 in the fall or by other events such as hurricanes, Wright said, Mississippi needs a long-term plan to improve access to distance learning. She said the state also needs to ensure that teachers are using high-quality programs that meet rigorous academic standards.

“Their future is not going to be in front of an individual teacher all the time,” Wright said. “It is going to be online as well as what they are getting in the classroom.”