by Emily Wagster Pettus, Associated Press
Mississippi legislative leaders said Friday that they are asking Republican Gov. Tate Reeves to call the House and Senate into special session to enact a medical marijuana program and approve financial help for hospitals.
They also want legislators during the session to authorize death benefit payments for law enforcement officers and first responders who die of COVID-19 and set aside money for shelters that help victims of child abuse and domestic violence.
Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann and House Speaker Philip Gunn, both Republicans, told reporters that they believe legislators could handle the business quickly — possibly in as little as one day.
Only a governor can call a special session and set the agenda. Reeves has not said what he will do.
“Staff from the governor’s office and Legislature met together to discuss it today, and we are looking forward to engaging further,” the governor’s spokeswoman, Bailey Martin, said Friday.
Hosemann and Gunn said hospital executives are having difficulty retaining enough nurses and other workers during the COVID-19 pandemic because some are being lured away to make more money working for private contractors.
“We’re in a crisis,” Gunn said.
Legislative leaders are proposing that Mississippi give some of its federal pandemic relief money to hospitals to provide financial incentives for employees. They did not specify an amount.
Public Safety Commissioner Sean Tindell said Friday that current state law allows payments of $100,000 to survivors of law enforcement officers or first responders who die because of the job. He said the law does not allow such payments for officers or responders who die of COVID-19, but he wants legislators to update the law to authorize those payments. Hosemann and Gunn are asking Reeves to put that on a special session agenda.
Hosemann and Gunn said shelters that help abuse victims have lost money during the pandemic, partly because of a decrease in payment of court fines. They want the state to cover those financial losses.
A few legislators have been negotiating for months on how to create a medical marijuana program. In May, the Mississippi Supreme Court tossed out a medical marijuana initiative that voters approved last November. Justices ruled that Mississippi’s initiative process was out of date and the medical marijuana proposal was not properly on the ballot.
The legislative proposal is not identical to the voter-approved initiative. The proposal would allow local governments to limit where the marijuana could be grown, processed or sold. That was not in Initiative 65.
The two lead negotiators — Republican Sen. Kevin Blackwell of Southaven and Republican Rep. Lee Yancey of Brandon — said Thursday that passing a bill would take a three-fifths majority because of tax provisions, and leaders of the House and Senate believe they have have enough votes lined up.
Yancey said the proposed program would help people with debilitating illnesses such as epilepsy, multiple sclerosis or cancer. He also said that if the bill becomes law, cities and counties would have 90 days to opt out of allowing medical marijuana growing sites, processing facilities and dispensaries. But if local governing boards decide to do so, voters could petition for an election to overturn that decision. Blackwell said if a city or county opts out of allowing facilities, people who live in those places would still be able to possess and use medical marijuana.