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8.14.20 – Giacomo Bologna – Mississippi Clarion Ledger

Mississippi lawmakers tweaked the rules on the Back to Business grant program this week because only a fraction of coronavirus relief money was getting to small businesses.

The Legislature set aside $300 million of federal CARES Act money in May to help small businesses impacted by the pandemic. Of that money, $60 million was supposed to be distributed in direct payments to some businesses forced to shut down, and $240 million was supposed to be available in grants worth up to $25,000.

The Clarion Ledger reported earlier this month that less than half of the $60 million had gone out and just 1% of the $240 million had been distributed.

Lawmakers made several changes to the program, including broadening access and increasing potential awards, that they hope will put a bigger chunk of the $300 million into the hands of small business owners. In discussing the bill, top lawmakers said they expect to revisit the program in October if there are still significant funds left. 

Any funds not distributed by Nov. 1 will then be spent at the discretion of Gov. Tate Reeves, according to the original law passed by the Legislature in May.

Here’s what lawmakers changed via Senate Bill 3053:

  • The businesses eligible for automatic payments of $2,000 has been broadened to include bakeries, bars, music promoters, sports promoters, caterers, scenic sightseeing and more.
  • The $1,500 base payment that was part of the Back to Business grant program has been increased to $3,500;
  • Business that received the automatic payment of $2,000 or participated in the federal Paycheck Protection Program will not have those amounts counted against them if they apply for a grant through the Back to Business program.

Small business owners who have not applied for the Back to Business program can do by visiting www.backtobusinessms.org. The changes made by the Legislature will apply retroactively to business owners who already submitted applications.

The House and Senate passed the bill Monday  with a veto-proof vote. Only Rep. Joel Bomgar, R-Madison, voted no. As of Thursday afternoon, Reeves had yet to sign the bill. His spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.Get the Storm Watch newsletter in your inbox.

In introducing the bill on the Senate floor, Sen. Josh Harkins, R-Flowood, estimated that even with the changes there could be $77 million or more left over. 

“There were a lot of applications that do not qualify. We’ve had an inordinate number of businesses that have not filed taxes. For one reason or another, they’re not qualifying for the money,” Harkins said. “I’ve got a feeling there’s going to be some money left over in this fund when we come back in October that we’ll be able to utilize.”

Contact Giacomo “Jack” Bologna at 601-961-7282 or gbologna@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter @gbolognaCL.