JEFFERSON CITY — With positive cases of a deadly virus continuing to rise across the state, Missouri lawmakers gathered in the Capitol on Monday to launch a special session on crime.
Although full debate on a package of legislation being pushed by Republican Gov. Mike Parson won’t come until after the Aug. 4 primary election, Monday’s session marked the first time since mid-May that the Senate has met.
Parson said he didn’t have the option of waiting until lawmakers return to action next year.
“The number of homicides we’ve seen is devastating and unacceptable. Innocent lives are being lost,” he said.
Against the backdrop of nearly 1,200 dead from the pandemic, some members wore masks during their short time in the chamber. National Guard members checked visitors for symptoms at entrances to the building. And, a COVID-19 testing station was operating in the Capitol basement for lawmakers and Capitol employees.
In the GOP-controlled House, about 20 members milled around on the floor when House Speaker Elijah Haahr, R-Springfield, officially commenced the special session.
Haahr was wearing a face mask, but a majority of the representatives seen were either not wearing face coverings or weren’t wearing them over their mouths and noses.
Parson, like President Donald Trump, has pivoted to crime as a campaign issue after the economy began sinking amid the pandemic. He wants changes in law that will:
• Allow St. Louis to hire police officers who live outside the city to increase the pool of recruits.
• Create a witness protection fund to keep witnesses and their families safe before trial.
• Require judges to consider whether youths should be tried as adults for crimes involving illegal use of guns.
• Make it a crime to assist someone 17 or younger to commit a weapons offense.
• Boost penalties for giving guns to juveniles.
Parson, St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson and law enforcement officials say the changes could help rein in a violent wave of crime in the state’s urban areas.
On Sunday, for example, seven people were shot in an 11-hour span across St. Louis, with homicide detectives requested for two of the shootings, police said.
In a separate incident Sunday, three officers were injured after a man fired at police vehicles in St. Louis, according to police reports.
But Black lawmakers representing parts of St. Louis decried the lack of reforms to police that have sparked protests across the nation following the death of George Floyd in Minnesota.
“I don’t see how we tackle violent crime if the community doesn’t trust the police department,” said Sen. Brian Williams, D-University City. “Police reform is the right direction.”
“History shows that the tough-on-crime approach does not work. It hasn’t produced results since the 1980s,” said Sen. Karla May, D-St. Louis. “We have to deal with the root causes of crime in these neighborhoods.”
The Senate has scheduled a committee meeting Tuesday to discuss the governor’s proposal, which is being sponsored by term-limited Sen. Doug Libla, R-Poplar Bluff.
The full Senate will not return until Aug. 5, with an eye on finishing work by Aug. 7.
The full House is not scheduled to return until Aug. 12.
A handful of senators introduced a number of other proposed new laws, but those are unlikely to advance because they do not fall within the scope of Parson’s call for a special session.
Among them were Sen. Bill Eigel, R-Weldon Spring, who submitted two bills about abortion, and Sen. Jill Schupp, D-Creve Coeur, who introduced legislation regarding the reopening of schools during a pandemic.
The legislation establishes a task force of experts and parents to make recommendations about safe schools. It also would authorize the use of federal pandemic aid to ensure teachers have enough personal protective equipment.
“Everybody has concerns and everybody would really like to see the schools open,” Schupp said. “The state should have stepped up to help districts months ago instead of leaving each district to fend for themselves. Going forward, Missouri needs a credible team in place to help schools, protect students and provide families some peace of mind.”
Sen. Bob Onder, R-Lake Saint Louis, introduced legislation targeting St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kimberly M. Gardner, who has rankled Republicans by charging Mark and Patricia McCloskey of St. Louis for waving guns in their front yard in the Central West End when protesters were moving through the area.
“She’s engaging in a political stunt prosecuting the McCloskeys,” Onder said.
His proposal would allow a governor to remove a local prosecutor for dereliction of duty.
The governor said he’s not interested in expanding the scope of the special session.
“I’m telling you we’re narrowly focused on what’s in front of us right now,” Parson said.
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