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Upended by pandemic, Missouri lawmakers limited in answering Parson’s agenda

Upended by pandemic, Missouri lawmakers limited in answering Parson’s agenda

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JEFFERSON CITY — Buoyed by a booming economy and a certain calm after the political upheaval of his predecessor’s short tenure as chief executive, Missouri Gov. Mike Parson laid out a plan in January aimed at helping him coast to victory in November.

More money for education. Job creation. A reduction of regulations on business.

But that easy-to-sell message came crashing down as the nation’s economy began crumbling under the effects of a global pandemic.

“This session started with a lot of hope,” Parson said Thursday as he conducted one of his near-daily briefings on the state’s response to a virus that has killed nearly 600 Missourians.

In mid-March, the Republican-led General Assembly hastily put its annual legislative session on hold after one of its members — Kansas City Democrat Joe Runions — fell ill to the coronavirus.

A full six weeks of the session were lost, leaving the Legislature to try to cram much of what Parson had wanted into a three-week sprint to Friday’s deadline to finish their business.

“We obviously have had a very challenging session because of the virus,” Rep. J. Eggleston, R-Maysville, told his colleagues during a Thursday floor debate.

The upended session left Parson with little ability to guide his plans through the House and Senate as he focused his efforts on responding to the spread of a deadly disease.

His budget plan for the fiscal year beginning July 1 was pared back to reflect a gut-punch to state revenue as tax dollars dried up.

His plan to grow jobs fell to the wayside as his top economic advisers predicted that Missouri’s April unemployment rate would be similar to the 14.7% national rate when state-specific figures are released in a few weeks.

Before lawmakers adjourned, Parson warned he might have to make more cuts to the budget, on top of the nearly $230 million he’s withheld because of plummeting tax revenue.

The Legislature did oblige Parson’s call for a reduction in red tape for people who work in heavily regulated jobs.

Under a plan sent to him during the final week of the session, workers who need licenses, like nurses, would have an easier path to qualify to work in Missouri.

Supporters say license reciprocity could help cast Missouri as a state that is open to people who are looking to move and continue their careers without going through bureaucratic red tape.

“I truly believe this will be a leader in the nation,” Parson said of the legislation.

In one of its final major actions, the House approved a plan to give voters another opportunity to weigh in on how state legislative districts should be drawn.

The move was a Republican-led effort to repeal a redistricting process that was approved by voters in 2018.

If approved, the proposed change would toss out a process that calls for a nonpartisan state demographer to draw legislative maps and replace it with a system that has led to Republican dominance in the House and Senate.

Lawmakers also sent Parson a plan to expand mail-in voting for elections in 2020 to help people concerned about catching or spreading COVID-19 at their polling place.

The governor’s likely opponent in the November general election urged him to quickly sign the legislation.

“Missourians want and need a system that makes voting easier,” Democratic state Auditor Nicole Galloway said.

Limiting damages

Lawmakers also sent Parson a wide-ranging proposal to try to limit punitive damages in legal cases, which are awarded as a way to financially punish defendants for causing harm.

If signed by Parson, who typically supports limiting lawsuits, the bill would only allow punitive damages if the person suing “proves by clear and convincing evidence that the defendant intentionally harmed the plaintiff without just cause or acted with a deliberate and flagrant disregard for the safety of others.”

The Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry, which is a major backer of Parson, hailed the passage of the measure.

“As our state begins its economic recovery from the COVID-19 crisis, we need to ensure Missouri is business-friendly and welcoming for job growth opportunities. Unfortunately, for years our legal climate has been sending the opposite message. But by passing these reforms we are finally addressing this problem and helping set the stage for a strong recovery,” said chamber president Dan Mehan.

The Legislature also sent Parson a bill requiring all Missouri hospitals to provide rape kits to victims of sexual assault.

“Survivors of sexual assault deserve justice, care and comfort,” Sen. Jill Schupp, D-Creve Coeur, said in a statement. “Unfortunately, too many Missouri hospitals do not have the resources needed to properly respond to these traumatic situations.”

Before the session began, Parson met with the mayors of St. Louis and Kansas City to discuss efforts to fight violent crime.

Much of that fell by the wayside in the Republican-led House and Senate.

City residency

A push by St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson to repeal a residency requirement on city police officers fizzled in the final days of the session.

She had sought the repeal as a way to boost hiring at a time when there were more than 100 unfilled jobs on the front lines of law enforcement.

A final package of crime bills did emerge with provisions making vehicular hijacking its own crime.

Parson’s call for lawmakers to require online purchases to be taxed failed to advance after conservative members of the Senate demanded that the revenue be offset by tax cuts.

Its failure came as more people are shopping online and traditional sources of tax revenue are decreasing.

For the eighth straight year, lawmakers were unable to deliver a prescription drug monitoring program to the governor’s desk.

He also wanted more money for infrastructure improvements and workforce development, but said he was satisfied with the results of the abbreviated session.

“I didn’t know they were going to get much done. These are totally unusual circumstances,” Parson said.

Senate Majority Leader Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, said the lawmakers’ decision to finish out the session during the COVID-19 pandemic was a signal to the people of Missouri.

“I think the outcomes are something that we’re pretty proud of,” he said.

Most legislative leaders believe they will be back in the Capitol before their scheduled veto session in September to deal with issues relating to the pandemic. House Speaker Elijah Haahr, R-Springfield, said the state budget likely will need to be adjusted to account for spiraling tax revenue.

Parson told reporters Thursday he was undecided.

“I don’t know if I’m going to call a special session,” Parson said.

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