COVID-19 shortened legislative session ends with a flurry of activity

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The Missouri Capitol in Jefferson City/Photo courtesy of Missouri House Communications

By BRENT MARTIN

St. Joseph Post

It is difficult to use one word to describe the just-concluded
Missouri legislative session.

You could use unusual, different, odd, even eerie; all seem to
fall short.

“Well, I will have to say with my 17 years of service, both in
the House and the Senate, this has been the most unusual session that we have
ever had,” state Sen. Dan Hegeman of Cosby tells St. Joseph Post.

Hegeman has more experience than most in these days of term
limits, having served in the Missouri House pre-term limits before winning
election to the Senate.

Legislators left on the annual week-long spring break and
didn’t return until six weeks later, due to COVID-19 concerns, losing valuable
legislative days.

Hegeman, chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, says
when lawmakers did return, they faced the economic destruction COVID-19
restrictions left in their wake.

“We started out by having plenty of revenue coming in and
looking at a rosy scenario and that turned on a dime to looking at a negative
revenue situation, then having to cut the budget by $700 million from the
governor’s original recommendations,” Hegeman says.

The primary reason legislators did return to Jefferson City
was to address the state budget. Lawmakers met their constitutional deadline
and approved a nearly $35 billion state budget, which likely will have to be
revised once again later in the year. Legislators also completed work on some
major pieces of legislation, but far fewer bills passed this year than most,
despite the best efforts of many lawmakers.

“There were a lot of bills added on to a lot of bills and they
were coming fast and furious there in the last two weeks,” state Rep. Bill
Falkner of St. Joseph tells St. Joseph Post, pointing out that since the
legislature returned with only three weeks in the session, sponsors attempted
to pass bills by combining them with others.

Some of those omnibus bills did make it to the finish line and
onto Gov. Mike Parson’s desks. Others sank under their own weight.

Though Falkner says the legislature got a lot done in a short
amount of time, it did fail to approve an online sales tax bill or a
prescription drug monitoring program, two bills which likely needed more time
to win approval.

It was the atmosphere which changed the most.

State Sen. Tony Luetkemeyer of Parkville says COVID-19
restrictions were evident as soon as you entered the state Capitol.

“The experience of walking in and having National Guardsmen
stationed at each of the entry points and taking everybody’s temperature and
asking you CDC health questions before you’re admitted into the building; it
just made for a very different experience,” Luetkemeyer relates to St. Joseph
Post.

State Rep. Brenda Shields of St. Joseph says some aspects of
the coronavirus-shortened session were more obvious than others.

“I wore a mask the entire time I was down there, some of my
other colleagues chose not to, but it was difficult to communicate through a
mask,” Shields tells us, adding social distancing also created communication
complications.

Other differences had more of a subtle effect, changing the
atmosphere usually associated with the final three weeks of a legislative
session, according to state Rep. Shelia Solon of St. Joseph.

“Visitors weren’t in the building,” Solon tells St. Joseph
Post. “Normally we have a Capitol full of children visiting the Capitol and
visitors and lobbyists and all kinds of people coming in to protest. The
rotunda is usually packed full of people those last few weeks of session. So,
the building was very quiet.”

Still, Solon says lawmakers were able to get some major
legislation passed, though not nearly the number of bills they usually approve.
She points out, aside from budget bills, legislators approved only around 30
bills. The usual number is at least three times that many.

Still, state Rep. Brenda Shields of St. Joseph says, despite
everything, the legislature finished the session strong.

“In the end, I think that we were extremely effective,”
Shields says. “I think that when you elect your individuals you elect those
individuals who are going to go down and work hard to represent your values in
the legislature and I think that through those last three weeks that we were
together, I think that we put our best effort together to create a good
legislative session.”