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Missouri Senate moves to boost oversight of health departments after COVID-19 shutdowns

Missouri Senate moves to boost oversight of health departments after COVID-19 shutdowns

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JEFFERSON CITY — The Missouri Senate moved a step closer Tuesday to approving legislation giving local elected officials oversight of public health orders.

The proposal, which is expected to come up for a final vote within days, would require health officials to get approval from city councils or county government boards before extending emergency health restrictions beyond a 30-day window.

Sen. Bob Onder, R-Lake Saint Louis, attached the measure to an unrelated proposal in an attempt to keep the legislation alive in the waning days of the General Assembly’s annual session.

It was among more than two dozen local government-related amendments tacked on to the underlying bill. The sponsor said the final draft needs a number of tweaks before it can be sent to the House.

Onder introduced the proposed limits in response to an outcry from churches and businesses that faced restrictions on their operations in the past year under local emergency health orders to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

The orders, which included early closing times, occupancy limits and outright closures, were imposed to keep people socially distant, a key measure identified by federal and local health experts to limit the spread of the potentially deadly respiratory virus.

While Republican-controlled areas of the state removed most pandemic-related restrictions in May 2020, Democratic areas including St. Louis and Kansas City took a more conservative approach as COVID-19 cases continued to climb through the year, only relaxing orders in response to declines in COVID-19 cases and increases in vaccinations.

But, businesses complained the restrictions cut sales and led to job losses. Republican lawmakers said the health orders were a sign of “tyranny.”

“There should always be accountability,” Onder said.

Opponents, including local public health departments, the state medical association and other health care groups, warned the change would politicize public health issues.

Similar legislation has been debated in the House.

The contentious issue was added to legislation sponsored by House Speaker Pro Tem John Wiemann, R-O’Fallon, urging local leaders to publish more financial information about government spending.

The proposed law is designed to boost transparency in local government. It would allow municipalities to post the information voluntarily, but also would give residents the ability to petition for the creation of a local database if local leaders are reluctant to participate.

The measure mirrors a similar bill that won House approval last year, but was not taken up in the Senate during the pandemic-shortened 2020 session.

The proposal would establish the Missouri Local Government Expenditure Database, to be maintained by the Missouri Office of Administration. It would go into effect in 2023 and would include information about a municipality’s or county’s expenditures and the vendors to whom payments were made.

The database must be accessible by the public without charge and have multiple ways to search and filter the information.

The legislation also includes provisions designed to address penalties charged to some St. Louis County residents for late property tax bills.

Under a separate amendment sponsored by Sen. Jill Schupp, D-Creve Coeur, taxpayers hit with late fees because of U.S. Postal Service delays would receive a credit for their 2021 tax bills equal to what they paid in late fees this year.

The issue began gaining attention earlier this year after residents who mailed their tax payments to the St. Louis County Collector of Revenue in late December were hit with substantial penalties because the mail was postmarked and arrived after the Jan. 1 deadline.

State law directs tax collectors to collect late fees on payments that are postmarked after deadline.

The legislation is House Bill 271.

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