With COVID-19 continuing to spread across the state, Missouri lawmakers convene at noon on Wednesday to begin the 101st General Assembly.
It is certain to be a session like no other.
Questions surrounding the state budget, funding for roads and bridges, education, local control and a myriad of other issues are on the agenda.
But the fate of each could ultimately be decided by COVID-19.
The virus already proved it can upend legislative proceedings in November, when positive cases among Senators caused a special session to be postponed for weeks.
Now, with 197 lawmakers, hundreds of staff and a cadre of lobbyists, reporters and advocates descending on the statehouse for the next five months, legislative leadership understands the path forward is uncertain.
“We lost a large part of last year’s session to COVID. And I think there’s a real risk that we could lose a portion of this year due to COVID,” said House Majority Leader Dean Plocher, R-Town and Country.
“My goal,” he said, “is to keep people safe while doing the job the state needs us to do and the job we have an obligation to do.”
Those entering the Capitol will be subject to health screenings, and both chambers will live stream committee hearings – high definition video in the House, audio in the Senate – to cut down on the number of people in attendance.
In the House, staff is encouraged to work from home when practical, including implementing shifts where employees rotate when they are working from home. Plexiglass shields have been installed in highly trafficked staff areas and air purifiers were installed in office complexes.
Senate President Pro Tem Dave Schatz, a Sullivan Republican who says he only recently recovered from COVID-19 himself, said the legislature is in a better position today than it was when the pandemic arrived in Missouri back in March.
“But we’re gonna have to be vigilant throughout this process,” he said. “And so, it’s going to be different.”
House Speaker Rob Vescovo, R-Arnold, said he considers legislators no different than any frontline workers.
“We expect our hospital workers to go to work. We expect our ambulance drivers to go in and go to work. We expect all of these other people to work for us,” Vescovo said. “And guess what, the voters expect politicians to work for them as well. So COVID is real, but we still have a job to do. And as far as I’m concerned, we’re going do it.”
Senate Minority Leader John Rizzo, D-Independence, said his concern above all is that lawmakers could contract COVID and take it back to their communities.
Cole County has the state’s third-highest overall infection rate and experienced its worst period for the disease in November, when it had the highest rate for new infections among the state’s 117 local health jurisdictions. The rate of new cases has decreased in recent weeks and Cole County ranks 47th for new infections reported so far this month.
“I don’t want the Capitol to become an incubator for the entire state,” Rizzo said. “Maybe we can just tackle some priorities, pass a budget, skip the bridge renaming bills, and then go home.”
Passing the state budget is the only thing the legislature is constitutionally required to do.
And it will be at the forefront of the entire session, with lawmakers confronting wide swings in revenue, including an expected $400 million decline in general revenue for the coming fiscal year.
“This won’t be an easy budget year,” Vescovo said.
In addition to crafting the budget, legislators will also have to contend with Medicaid expansion.
Voters signed off on expansion in August, opening up Medicaid eligibility to individuals and families with incomes up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level.
House Speaker Pro Tem John Wiemann, R-O’Fallon, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that the debate among Republicans is whether to reform Medicaid to cut costs and fund expansion, or to refuse to fund expansion entirely.
Rizzo said Republicans don’t have a choice but to implement what the voters implemented.
“They’re going to have to fund it,” he said. “It’s not unusual for them to reject what the voters want. They’ve done it in the past, where they disregard what the voters have spoken on. But they aren’t on solid ground if they try to not fund expansion.”
GOP lawmakers had hoped to approve legislation that aims to shield businesses from lawsuits stemming from the pandemic when they gathered last month for a special session.
But as the Senate was taking up the measure, Gov. Mike Parson unexpectedly pulled the plug on the idea.
Now, with the backing of the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry, it’s back near the top of the Republcian agenda.
“If someone contracts COVID-19, today a lawyer can file a frivolous lawsuit against a Missouri business suggesting the company was the source and cause of the infection, even if the employer was following state and federal safety guidelines,” said Daniel Mehan, president and CEO of the Missouri Chamber. “This threat looms over every employer in Missouri — including businesses, schools and health care providers.”
The bill faces opposition from a myriad of groups, ranging from AARP Missouri to Missouri NEA to the Missouri Nurses Association and the Missouri AFL-CIO. They argue the legislation would protect businesses flouting the rules.
Legislative leaders in both the House and Senate have vowed to tackle education reform this session, with most expecting a push to expand charters schools across the state and bolster opportunities for virtual education.
Vescovo said one thing COVID-19 has done is “expose some areas that we need to address in our education system.”
“My children haven’t been in school full time since March,” Vescovo said. “Children across the United States have essentially missed a year of school. There’s got to be a better way.”
The speaker said he will roll out his agenda for education reform during his opening day address on Wednesday.
Senate Majority Leader Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, said on Twitter last month that reforms in education “certainly won’t fix all the problems we know exist. But I believe it’s a part of the equation.”
He tweeted that “fixing this injustice in MO is my top priority.”
Schatz has made it no secret that finding revenue to help fund road and bridge repair is among his top legislative priorities. This year he will once again be pushing for an increase in the gas tax to fund those repairs.
His bill would put the issue on the ballot. If approved by voters, Missouri’s 17-cent-per-gallon gasoline tax would increase by 2 cents per year for five years, until reaching 27 cents.
“I know it’s going to be a process of negotiation,” Schatz said. “It may be part of a compromise on other matters. You never know how it can be achieved, but I want to find a way to move a proposal through that helps us fund our future needs for some time to come.”
Even if Schatz is able to steer his bill across the finish line and onto the ballot, its success is anything but guaranteed. In 2018, voters rejected a proposed gas-tax hike supported by Parson.
That’s one of the reasons Vescovo said any gas tax hike would be greeted skeptically in the House.
“I am not a fan of the gas tax,” he said. “I do believe it is the state’s responsibility to get to take care of our roads and bridges, but the voters just turned down a gas tax increase two years ago.”
The rocky rollout of the state’s medical marijuana program drew legislative scrutiny last year, with the House oversight committee delving into allegations of corruption and mismanagement.
Though questions remain, and the specter of an FBI investigation involving medical marijuana continues to hover in the background, it is unclear whether the committee will continue its inquiry in 2021.
More than two years after voters authorized medical marijuana in Missouri, at least one GOP lawmaker hopes his colleagues will place a question on the ballot legalizing recreational marijuana — but without caps on licenses that have proven controversial.
Rep. Shamed Dogan, a Ballwin Republican sponsoring the bill, has criticized the caps as unfairly restraining the free market. He told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that the current system “favors certain people in the market over others who want to get into the market.”
Two lawmakers — a Republican and a Democrat — will face scrutiny over alleged wrongdoing when the session gets underway.
The House Ethics Committee has recommended censure for Democratic state Rep. Wiley Price of St. Louis. Price was being investigated by the committee for allegedly having sex with a legislative intern.
The committee determined he lied under oath and harassed an employee who reported his alleged involvement with the intern.
Price has denied wrongdoing and rebuffed calls for his resignation.
The ethics committee will also look into allegations that Republican state Rep. Rick Roeber of Lee’s Summit physically and sexually abused his children.
Like Price, Roeber has denied any wrongdoing. But his adopted daughter says Roeber made improper sexual advances toward her in 1990, when she was 9 years old, while two of his other children say he was also physically abusive.
This story was republished with permission from the Missouri Independent, a nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering state government, politics and policy.