State Lawmakers will return to the capitol next week

2 months 3 days 3 hours ago Tuesday, March 31 2020 Mar 31, 2020 Tuesday, March 31, 2020 12:57:00 PM CDT March 31, 2020 in News
By: Daniel Perreault, KOMU 8 Political Reporter
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JEFFERSON CITY- State lawmakers were originally scheduled to be back at the capitol Jefferson City this week after their spring break, but the coronavirus has put a hold on their return. 

As the number of cases of COVID-19 increase in the state, Senate Majority Floor Leader Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia said the Senate will be back in session next week.

The Senate will be in session on Tuesday and Wednesday to deal with changes to the current year’s,  budget, known as the supplemental budget, including $40 million in federal and state funds to help in the fight against COVID-19Lawmakers also  face a May 8 deadline to pass the state’s $30 billion budget for 2020-21. As the state continues to battle the pandemic, there will likely be cuts made to the budget passed by the House on March 16. At that time, the state only had six positive cases of the virus. 

"It probably won't impact supplemental budget a whole lot, but it could very well impact the fiscal year ‘21 budget," Rowden said. The budget year starts July 1.

Representative Kip Kendrick, D-Columbia, who is a member of the House Budget Committee, said the financial growth projections they were working with before spring break are now likely not feasible.

"At this point, it does not appear that the 1.6% growth for FY 21 is going to be possible at all," Kendrick said. "Hopefully this is just a short term economic downturn, but even just a short term downturn is going to be very significant. There are going to be many job losses, there's going to be a lot of reduction in income tax collection, as well as sales tax collection."

Rowden said he expects the state to receive about $3 billion in funding to fight the pandemic from the federal government, and  added that lawmakers must take a longer-term  view of  measuring  the impact of the virus. 

"A slower approach is a little bit better because we're going to know more about this in six months than we do now as far as the long term impact on the structural economic impact,"  Rowden  said.

Once the Senate amends and passes the supplemental budget, it will go back to the House for approval.

Kendrick says it could be several weeks before state lawmakers can truly understand the impact of COVID-19 on the state budget.

"We want to make sure that we can do our job that we, you know, fulfill our constitutional requirements of passing a budget in a timely fashion," Kendrick said. "We also want to make sure that we're not creating a bigger public health concern and issue if we were to spread coronavirus amongst members and then send it back to all corners of the state."

Gov. Mike Parson closed the state capitol until April 6. When lawmakers do return next week, things will be different.

Rowden said Senate and House leaders have been talking with MU Health and Boone and Cole County public health officials to develop a plan to mitigate the risk of spreading the virus.

There will be a limited number of entrances to the capitol. Rowden said everyone entering the building will have their temperature taken and be asked questions about whether they have recently traveled to a hot spot, are experiencing symptoms, or been in contact with anyone who has a known case of COVID-19. 

The Senate will also begin live streaming committee hearings. (The House already provides that service).  Leaders will also extend roll call votes to allow Senators who choose to follow the debate from their offices time to get to the floor.

"The public will not have any interaction with legislators as far as just walking unfettered through the hallways, and that goes for lobbyists as well," he said. "We will effectively be quarantined in our offices, and we won't be going back and forth a whole bunch between offices like we normally do."

Rowden said state lawmakers are using next week as a test for which measures work and which measures don't.

"We don't know exactly which ones are good or bad," he said. "We're using that as the test run to see if that can be extended throughout the rest of the session."

Kendrick said he hopes the legislature is creative in its solutions to allow state lawmakers to continue working.

"If we need to listen to House debate on the bills  in our offices on speaker phone and then come up in small groups to vote on the House floor, that may work," he said. "However creative, we need to be to make sure that we can get our job done, I think that's what's important at this point."

Beyond the supplemental budget, Rowden said it is not clear what else state lawmakers will be able to get done this session.

"I think any thought that we'll be able to go back to normal is probably not a realistic one," he said. "As long as the coven issue is still an issue at the level that it is now, as it relates to, you know, a growing trajectory, you know, still concerns about hospital capacity and some of these other things that we're working to try to get in front of, as long as those things are still at the forefront."

He said it is not impossible for state lawmakers to tackle issues like the Prescription Drug Monitoring Program or tort reform, but it will be difficult.

It is not clear what state lawmakers are planning to do with the bill to overturn Clean Missouri. It was an amendment voters approved in 2018 that mandates that legislative districts were drawn proportionally to the population and does not allow either party to have an unfair advantage. It has already passed through the Senate but still needs to work its way through the House. Kendrick said he is cautiously optimistic Republican lawmakers will not try and bring it up.

"I would be very concerned about trying to push through something that's very controversial and very politically divisive at a time of a public crisis such as this," he said.

Lawmakers could possibly hold a special session once things calm down later this summer to work through other issues or bills that they are not able to get to because of the pandemic.

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