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Bipartisan group in Missouri Senate sinks attempt to limit local health authorities

Bipartisan group in Missouri Senate sinks attempt to limit local health authorities

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Missouri state Sen. Bill Eigel, (left), R-Weldon Spring, and Sen. Bob Onder, R-Lake Saint Louis, listen to the speaker on the Senate floor on Friday, May 17, 2019, on the final day of the legislative session in Jefferson City. Photo by Christian Gooden, cgooden@post-dispatch.com

JEFFERSON CITY — A group of Republicans and Democrats early Thursday sank a Conservative Caucus-backed attempt to limit the authority of local health officials — a vote that demonstrated a significant split within the Senate GOP caucus on the issue.

Nine Republicans joined with all 10 Democrats to oppose the bill, sponsored by Sen. Bob Onder, R-Lake Saint Louis. It was defeated on an 11-19 vote shortly after 1 a.m. Thursday.

Debate around reining in local health authorities has become one of the biggest flashpoints of this year’s legislative session, when lawmakers are meeting for the first time since local health authorities and elected officials last year enacted pandemic controls tougher than what Republican Gov. Mike Parson would authorize.

Republican proponents on Wednesday argued there needed to be “checks and balances” on local authorities, and that officials needed to weigh economic and social costs in addition to health concerns. Democrats said the bill would tie the hands of local governments in perpetuity, even during future pandemics that are different than the current one, in which multiple vaccines were developed within a year.

Sen. Steven Roberts, D-St. Louis, proposed an amendment that would cause the bill’s main provision — oversight of local health authorities and executives by local governing bodies — to expire after one year.

“Would you agree … our public health officials were acting in the best interest with the information they had at hand?” Roberts asked Sen. Andrew Koenig, R-Manchester. “They didn’t set out to destroy businesses.”

“I don’t think that that was their intent,” said Sen. Andrew Koenig, R-Manchester. “But I do think what we’ve seen is that there’s been tunnel vision, where the only thing they look at is COVID, without looking at any other impact to anything else.”

With Democrats holding the floor to stall a vote, debate continued into the night.

Roberts withdrew his amendment at 1 a.m. Thursday. Sen. Lincoln Hough, R-Springfield, said opposing sides could not come to an agreement in behind-the-scenes negotiations.

“It appears as though now we have just not been able to find a compromise and in my opinion it’s probably time to just go ahead and have a vote on this,” said Hough, who was one of the nine Republicans to vote against Onder’s bill.

Onder’s proposal would have:

• Prevented state and county officials from “directly or indirectly” restricting the “free exercise of religion” during a declared state of emergency.

• Required local health authorities, or a county executive, to receive two-thirds approval from a county’s governing body if an order is intended to last longer than 15 days in a 180-day period.

• Allowed residents to receive a credit on property taxes owed if an order lasts longer than 15 days and results in restrictions on the use of that property, such as occupancy restrictions.

• Forbidden local governments from restricting interstate or intrastate travel, or condition “the freedom of interstate or intrastate travel on a vaccination or state or local passport.”

• Forbidden hospitals and local governments from restricting visitation at hospitals “in accordance with” a hospitals regular protocols. The measure would require hospitals allow entry to a patient parent or guardian, clergy member, patient advocate, attorney, or one visitor of a pregnant or postpartum woman.

“I think that is irresponsible for us to force a hospital to allow anyone in without knowing ’are they carrying the danger?’” said Sen. Barbara Washington, D-Kansas City.

As of Wednesday, the virus had killed more than 8,400 Missourians, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

Orders during the pandemic included early closing times, limited occupancy and outright closures, imposed to keep people socially distant to combat the spread of the potentially deadly respiratory virus.

The GOP-controlled House has already approved similar legislation to that debated Wednesday, sending it to the Senate for consideration. But the bipartisan rejection of Onder’s bill Thursday morning signals turbulence for the House proposal.

The nine Republicans to vote “no” were: Sens. Jason Bean, R-Holcomb; Mike Bernskoetter, R-Jefferson City; Justin Brown, R-Rolla; Mike Cierpiot, R-Lee’s Summit; Sandy Crawford, R-Buffalo; Karla Eslinger, R-Wasola; Elaine Gannon, R-De Soto; Hough; and Bill White, R-Joplin.

The legislation is Senate Bill 12.

Updated at 1:30 a.m. Thursday.

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