Sen. Paul Wieland has seen a lot of startling events during his 12 Missouri legislative sessions.
The Imperial Republican has witnessed resignations of House speakers, deaths of statewide officials and implosions of gubernatorial administrations. But Wieland says he’s never gone through anything like 2020, when the coronavirus pandemic massively altered the Legislature’s workload and focus.
“We’ve never had a time where everyone was gone for three weeks in the heart of session,” Wieland said. “This has got to be the strangest session I’ve ever served in.”
The pandemic not only ate up the amount of time that lawmakers had to consider and pass bills, it fundamentally changed the legislative process. The truncated time frame meant that lawmakers had to stuff multiple ideas into so-called omnibus bills, a practice that drew bipartisan contempt.
And while lawmakers did appropriate a huge amount of federal money to help the state deal with the coronavirus pandemic, some lawmakers felt priorities were fundamentally out of whack — and should have been geared more narrowly to issues that arose from the unprecedented calamity.
“I thought that we would be talking about the budget and things that were directly related to COVID-19,” said Rep. Kevin Windham, D-Hillsdale. “And I was distressed, for lack of a better word, when I came and found that we were talking about biodiesel and feral hogs and brass knuckles being legalized — when we still haven't talked about different things like facemasks or tracking tracing apps.”
A shaken session
At the beginning of Missouri’s legislative session, lawmakers had hoped to tackle a host of economic and public safety issues. Some of the ideas that were priorities at the beginning of the session, such as regulating gaming machines that popped up at places like gas stations, fell by the wayside as the coronavirus spread throughout the state.
The reason behind the shift in focus was obvious: Lawmakers were physically absent from the Capitol for several weeks — a period of time in which the House and Senate may have been trying to work through thorny issues.
“This session started with a lot of hope,” Gov. Mike Parson said. “And then all of a sudden, we know where we're at today and the things that we've had to deal with.”
There were numerous logistical hurdles to wade through once lawmakers returned. The House and Senate had to figure how to go about business in an era of social distancing. Some lawmakers ended up wearing face masks in a Capitol building nearly bereft of people. At least one legislator, Rep. Joe Runions of Grandview, contracted COVID-19 — but recovered and was present during the last week of the legislative session.
Lawmakers also had to return at the height of the pandemic to pass an unprecedented supplemental budget request that appropriated nearly $6 billion in federal relief money. Even the manner in which people voted on that issue was unusual: In the House, lawmakers spoke about the unprecedented allocation in a nearly empty chamber — and then came in to vote on the bill in small groups. It was a far cry from the beehive of activity that typically takes place when the House is in session.
When legislators officially returned in late April, they worked on passing a budget that was dramatically altered by the coronavirus. And Parson said that absent some action from Congress to send money to the state, he may have to significantly withhold funding in July.
“This budget we passed is going to rely on additional federal money coming down to the state in order to balance the budget,” said Rep. Kip Kendrick, D-Columbia. “I think that’s very clear.”
Lawmakers did manage to get several key agenda items across the finish line.
One of the more notable bills that was connected to the coronavirus was setting up a process allowing people at risk or afraid of catching it to get absentee ballots. The bill, a top priority for local election officials, came after lawmakers compromised after hours of strenuous negotiations.
“I think it’s important to recognize while we’re under an emergency declaration and we’re under a pandemic, that there are going to have to be some things that we do to ensure that citizens have full and fair access to the ballot box,” said House Speaker Elijah Haahr, R-Springfield.
Lawmakers approved legislation aimed at cracking down on carjackings and stiffening sentences for people convicted of violent crimes. They also passed measures requiring insurers to cover COVID-19 testing, as well as limits on punitive damages from lawsuits.
Parson pointed to passage of what’s known as license reciprocity for military spouses. That bill would allow for military spouses’ occupational licenses from other states to be valid if a family is based in Missouri.
“No other state has enacted the reforms that Missouri has on professional license reform,” Parson said. “I truly believe this will be a leader in the nation.”
Also passing this session was a bill allowing easier access to rape kits for sexual assault survivors.
The legislation, sponsored by Sen. Jill Schupp, D-Creve Coeur, creates a statewide telehealth network of sexual assault nurse examiners. Due to a shortage of these certified nurses throughout the state, some survivors are forced to travel long distances for proper evidence collection or aren’t able to see one at all.
“We have these opportunities that present themselves due to telehealth that we haven’t seen before,” Schupp said. “This is the right thing to do for the people of the state of Missouri.”
Even with some bipartisan agreement on legislation, many lawmakers from both parties were upset with how the session progressed. Some were disappointed that the Legislature didn’t pass priorities that have been on the agenda for years — like creating a prescription drug monitoring program or taxing online sales.
But one particular source of bipartisan ire was what’s known as omnibus bills. That’s when lawmakers stuff multiple ideas into a single piece of legislation — with the idea that it would have a better chance of passing near the end of session compared to a standalone bill.
While Wieland noted that it’s pretty common for lawmakers to create transportation or election omnibus bills, he said the truncated time frame dramatically accelerated that practice.
Rep. Donna Baringer, a St. Louis Democrat who was on House committees that reviewed omnibus bills, said she sometimes had to read multiple bills that were over 400 pages long. Baringer ultimately declared she wouldn’t vote for any omnibus bills, because she couldn’t know for sure what was in them.
“We always call it sausaging,” Baringer said of the process. “But someone said to me, ‘Well, you know, this is more like tripe.’ It’s just unpalatable.”
Others felt that lawmakers were dealing with issues completely divorced from the coronavirus crisis.
For instance, many Democratic lawmakers were outraged that the House spent hours on Wednesday debating and passing a ballot initiative that could undo a state legislative redistricting system voters overwhelmingly approved in 2018. And others criticized how lawmakers didn’t end up passing COVID-19-related agenda items, including collecting an online sales tax that could help municipalities hurt during the pandemic.
“For House Republicans, responding to a disease that’s infected thousands of Missourians, killed hundreds and left countless unemployed wasn’t just an backburner issue — it never made it to the stove,” said House Minority Leader Crystal Quade, D-Springfield. “Instead of confronting this unprecedented crisis, Republicans prioritized protecting their political power and doing the bidding of special-interest donors.”
Republican leaders like Haahr disagreed with that assessment — adding they did pass legislation that focused on the virus.
“It’s important to say we’re not just going to be here for one or two issues,” Haahr said. “If we’re going to be here, we’re going to be here to work, and that means early mornings and long nights and it means that some of the issues we prioritized before the pandemic were issues we were going to prioritize after the pandemic.”
There’s bipartisan agreement that the 2020 legislative session may not be completely finished.
That’s because many Republican and Democratic lawmakers say they expect to come back soon — especially if Congress passes a bill allocating money to help state and local governments with budget shortfalls.
“I acknowledge that the possibility of having a special session for a supplemental budget at some time between now and Dec. 31,” said Sen. Scott Sifton, D-Affton. “With respect to other COVID-related legislation, I acknowledge there may be some things that come up that we may need to address later legislatively. What I really don’t want to do is get into a special session where we’re taking up things that have nothing to do with COVID-19.”
Parson wouldn’t commit to a special session, adding that he wants to see how the state continues to deal with the coronavirus crisis.
“The main thing I want to do right now is handle the COVID-19 virus, see where that's going to be come the first of June and how we're going to get the economy going — that's my two priorities right now for the state of Missouri,” Parson said.
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