As the bizarre 2020 session of the Mississippi legislature continues, the House and Senate are both working to finalize all general bills and complete the budget for the upcoming fiscal year, beginning July 1. This past Tuesday, June 9, 2020, was the deadline for committees to pass bills originating in the other house. Amidst the regular session, the House and Senate are close to agreeing on meeting one more time to discuss COVID-19 funds. Lastly, this week, Gov. Reeves announced the opening of grant applications for the Back to Business Mississippi grant program.
The increase in the Emerging Crop Loan program is close to heading to the Governor’s desk. This legislation increases the cap on loans for emerging crops from $200,000 to $250,000 per occurrence and $400,000 to $500,000 over the lifetime of the borrower. SB 2319 clarifies a knuckle boom is eligible for a lower tax rate along with other farm implements, and it is headed to the Governor for his signature. A repealer was added in a portion of the Boll Weevil Eradication program bill dealing with the board submitting an annual accounting. The repealer was extended this year.
One piece of legislation receiving a great deal of discussion is the Hemp Cultivation Act. This bill allows for industrial hemp to be grown in Mississippi, under strict regulations. The Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce originally wanted a state plan cleared by USDA regulating growers in the state, but COVID-19’s budget impact will not allow for a new program at the Bureau of Plant Industries, and therefore any hemp grown in Mississippi at first would be through a USDA permit, if the legislation passes. The bill presently does allow the state to fund the program at a later date or allow for private industry to fund the program. The Hemp bill is on the House calendar to be voted on before next Wednesday’s deadline.
Two of Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation’s biggest priorities are HB 576, the Livestock Liability Law, and SB 2553, the Uniform Partition of Heirs Property Act. The Livestock Liability law conforms our state’s law to our neighbors’ related to livestock being on state highways and would bring conformity to tort law in Mississippi. Presently, a livestock owner is presumed negligent if their livestock is hit by a driver on a state highway. This law would delete that presumption. HB 576 is on the senate calendar awaiting a vote. The Uniform Partition of Heirs Property Act provides protection of property rights for family members owning land together, reducing burdens on those trying to purchase heir property, and allows more Mississippians to participate in USDA and FSA programs because of language in the 2018 farm bill. SB 2553, the UPHPA is awaiting a vote on the House calendar.
Commissioner Gipson’s “Future of Mississippi Agriculture Bill” which has some Farm Bureau supported portions is now on the Senate floor for a vote. It includes more Ag Theft officers, and support for the fairgrounds in Jackson and the Mississippi Agriculture and Forestry Museum.
Farm Bureau also supports HB 379, the Marketplace Facilitator Act, allowing the state to collect sales tax from third party sellers on websites like Amazon and Facebook Marketplace. During the 2018 Special Session, 35% of use tax was diverted to cities, counties, and the Local System Bridge Program to help Mississippi’s rural infrastructure. This would put more funds towards that diversion and in turn help keep property taxes low. HB 379 is on the Senate calendar waiting on a vote.
While there is no pending legislation, Farm Bureau has signed onto a letter requesting House and Senate leadership to consider a bill limiting liability for COVID-19 related matters. This legislation would help business owners sleep easier at night without worrying about unfounded lawsuits from employees or patrons related to COVID-19 contraction as long as businesses followed government guidelines.
With general bill deadlines approaching, and leaders working on a budget, the legislature is also considering how the state will spend the $1.25 billion in CARES Act funds the state received. They spent $300 million on the Back to Business Grant program leaving about 75% of the funds. New treasury guidance last week indicated 40% of the funds would have to go to municipalities. This would leave only 35% of the funds for other needs such as distance learning, hospitals, state response, etc. One idea finding favor in the House and Senate is a grant program for broadband deployment. Farm Bureau favors this as it provides distance learning, telemedicine, and precision agriculture opportunities for rural Mississippi.
A great amount of work remains, but it appears the “normal” portion of the 2020 legislative session will wrap up the end of June, and the legislature will then be left to deal with COVID-19 related matters for the remainder of the year.
As of June 11, 2020, Mississippi reported 18,483 total cases of COVID-19 and 868 deaths from the virus.
Gov. Reeves’s Safe Return order (https://www.sos.ms.gov/content/executiveorders/ExecutiveOrders/1492.pdf) has been extended through the end of June, with some minor changes found here https://www.sos.ms.gov/content/executiveorders/ExecutiveOrders/1496.pdf . It gives guidelines for Mississippians returning to work, the number of individuals at functions, travel, along with other areas of daily life. Social distancing guidelines are still in place along with recommendations for those older or with under lying health conditions to remain home if possible.
Gov. Reeves also announced Back to Business Mississippi grant applications are available as of noon Thursday, June 11, 2020. All of the information for the program can be found here. Backtobusinessms.org