JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri lawmakers return to the capital city on Wednesday, with new policy debates sparked by the COVID-19 pandemic expected to come to a head in the coming weeks and months.
Multiple Republican lawmakers have filed proposals to limit local governments’ authority over public health orders — a response and rebuke of local rules designed to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
With some schools meeting virtually, and others holding in-person classes or taking a hybrid approach, there is likely to be new momentum to expand the number of charter schools or allow students to attend schools outside of their home districts.
There is also an early push, backed by the influential Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry, to limit COVID-19-related lawsuits, potentially shielding businesses such as nursing homes from liability stemming from outbreaks at their facilities (Senate Bill 51).
There promises to be new debate on old topics.
Senate President Pro Tem Dave Schatz, R-Sullivan, has filed measures to both raise the state’s gas tax to pay for infrastructure improvements (Senate Bill 262) and to clearly outlaw unregulated slot machines that have been deployed across the state (Senate Bill 10).
Also unresolved from years past is what is known as the “Wayfair” tax, which would allow Missouri to collect sales tax on purchases made from companies without a physical presence in the state.
Lawmakers face the daunting task of crafting a budget for the fiscal year that begins in July.
The state, in a consensus revenue estimate issued Dec. 10, is forecasting a drop in general revenue collections next fiscal year, from an anticipated $10.2 billion this year to $9.78 billion in the year that begins July 1 — a 4.1% reduction.
Here are a handful of issues to watch in 2021:
Gov. Mike Parson, a Republican who opposed Medicaid expansion, has promised to carry out the voter-approved plan. He is scheduled to present his budget blueprint on Jan. 27, the day of his State of the State address.
House Speaker Pro Tem John Wiemann, R-O’Fallon, said the GOP caucus continues to debate how to move forward, with two camps emerging: those who want to fund the expansion while carrying out changes to cut waste, and those who are opposed to funding the expansion.
“I’m going to be advocating for reform measures first,” Wiemann said. “And then once we make it better, as money is available, which, you know, we don’t know yet. If the money is available then we’ll do what we’re supposed to do and that’s, you know, expand it and fund it.
“If the governor can put together a budget that takes care of all the other priorities we have in this state … I think we have to look at that budget and give it careful consideration,” he said.
With the results of the U.S. Census yet to be reported, it is unclear whether Missouri will retain eight U.S. House seats for the next decade. The Legislature will be charged with drawing new districts. So far, no efforts to dramatically change the partisan breakdown (six GOP seats, and two Democratic seats) of Missouri’s map have publicly emerged.
With population growth in St. Charles County, and 11 GOP lawmakers representing at least a slice of the county, there has been talk of including the entire county in one district.
Rather than issue statewide rules, Parson has ceded to local officials the authority to make decisions on virus-related rules. But those same health orders — notably St. Louis County Executive Sam Page’s November order closing indoor dining — have generated fierce backlash from many business owners and others angered by the government intervention.
Lawmakers have filed at least 11 measures that in some way restrict either local or state health officials.
Currently operating only in St. Louis and Kansas City, and approved for the Normandy School District, expect another push to allow charters in smaller cities such as Columbia and Springfield.
Senate Bill 25, sponsored by Sen. Bill Eigel, R-Weldon Spring, would allow charters to operate in any city within a charter county, such as St. Louis County, or in any city with a population greater than 30,000. The bill also has an education savings account element available to all families, Eigel said.
Senate Majority Leader Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, said on Twitter earlier this month that “kids born into poverty are trapped by a bureaucracy that purports to care for kids, but really only cares about their own interests. I have four years left in #MOLeg … fixing this injustice in MO is my top priority.”
Frustrated by the rollout of the state’s medical marijuana program, one GOP lawmaker is trying to convince his colleagues to place a question on the ballot legalizing marijuana for adult use — or else risk an outside group crafting its own proposal, collecting signatures and placing it on the ballot.
Rep. Shamed Dogan, R-Ballwin, wants to do away with the license caps that he says have unfairly restrained the medical marijuana marketplace. But he could run into headwinds from industry interests looking to protect a status quo licensing scheme, and Republicans who oppose legalizing marijuana altogether (House Joint Resolution 30).
“We haven’t done as good of a job as we could across the country of making sure that we’re providing families resources so that they’re able to be successful and stay together,” said Rep. Mary Elizabeth Coleman, R-Arnold.
She said when it’s not possible to keep a family together, the state needed to make sure “that a kid gets to permanency as quickly as possible so that they’re able to develop those bonds and minimizing the number of moves they have.”
The GOP booted incoming Rep. Rick Roeber, R-Lee’s Summit, from its caucus after, during the campaign, his now-adult children accused him of abuse when they were minors. Democrats, meanwhile, have been tight-lipped about allegations lodged against Rep. Wiley Price, D-St. Louis, that he had sex with an intern and then tried to cover it up.
It is unclear what other action the House will take against Roeber, but as a result of a unanimous House Ethics Committee vote, it could censure Price, who has refused to resign.
Editor's note: a previous version of this article misstated the intern's post, according to the report.