The Legislative Session rolled along with some sense of normalcy the month of February. COVID delays in January made many questions how productive the 2021 legislative session would be and would it slow significantly and entail numerous starts and stops. Aside from weather delays from the historic winter storm that impacted the entire state in Mid-February, the legislative session rolled along at a pre-pandemic pace in February.
Both Chambers moved forward with a slate of daily hearings making it difficult to navigate the 20+ hearings a day. Floor debate has also moved along productively with the House passing several pieces of legislation while the Senate focused on long debate and overnight sessions moving some of its more controversial pieces of legislation.
The Senate worked through the night in early February to reach an agreement on COVID-19 liability legislation. SB51, sponsored by Senator Tony Luetkemeyer, offers liability protections for businesses that manufacture medical supplies and other products and equipment directly related to the Covid-19 pandemic. It also covers medical professionals and religious organizations. The original debate to perfect the bill lasted nearly fifteen-hours. However, the final vote on the bill was delayed several weeks as the Senate attempted to gather enough votes to meet the 2/3 vote needed to pass an Emergency Clause. The Emergency Clause is necessary so the bill can become law once the Governor signs it rather than the constitutional effective date of August 28. After a 3-week absence of Sen. O’Laughlin due to illness, the bill was brought to a final vote. The bill received a passing vote; however, the Senate could not garner enough votes to get the Emergency Clause passed. Without the Emergency Clause it is unclear what the fate of the bill will be. The bill is a priority for the Governor, as well as legislative leaders, who see it as a key part of the COVID-19 related economic recovery.
Both the House and Senate have debated numerous bills that would limit the authority of local city and county health officials. At issue is the closure of schools, churches, and businesses during the ongoing pandemic. There are several bills filed that in some form would prohibit the issuance of public health orders that limit the number of people on private residential property and would also prohibit the closure of or placement of restrictions on restaurants, schools, and other regarding working and assembling, as opposed to the government issuing restrictive health orders. Much of the criticism was aimed at St. Louis County Executive Sam Page, who has been responsible for some of the most stringent lockdown orders in the state. This issue will continue to be debated as the legislative session progresses.
There is bi-partisan support in both the House and Senate to forgive unemployment overpayments that occurred during the pandemic. The House Special Committee on Government Oversight considered seven bills on this topic. In addition, bills have been filed in the Senate. The Department of Labor and Industrial Relations was under fire during House Budget and Senat Appropriations committee meetings in both the House and Senate. At issue is more than $150 million that went to over 46,000 unemployed Missourians during the pandemic. The Department of Labor and Industrial Relations says the money was sent in error and the recipients must now plan to pay it back. The error happened in other states as well, but many of them have decided to offer waivers. Missouri is not one of them. The state is offering a zero-interest payment plan and says if the money is not paid back people could see their future paychecks garnished. The move has angered lawmakers who say those who received the money are not at fault and cannot afford the repayment option amid the pandemic.
Bills dealing with Right-to-work and paycheck protection have been filed and debated in a Senate Committee. The bills are filed each year. The bills have been heard in Committee but as of newsletter press time had not yet been voted out of Committee. The hearing on the bills were much shorter than past years and fewer people came to testify. While these bills will likely make it to the Senate Calendar, we do not expect either to make it across the finish line to for either Chamber to spend much time debating them. Since Right-to-work was defeated by such a large margin by Missouri voters a couple years ago, the Republican leadership will likely focus on getting other priorities across the finish line.
Education reform has been discussed for many years in the state. After school shutdowns during COVID, it appears that various education reforms have a good shot at getting across the finish line this year. The Senate debated SB52 until the early morning hours in late February. The following day the House took up and perfected a bill that would implement and Education Savings Account. The heart of the issue to the push to expand charter schools across the state. The issue is a priority of both the Speaker of the House, Rep. Rob Vescovo and the Senate Majority Floor Leader, Sen. Caleb Rowden.
We will continue to keep you informed of legislative happenings in Jefferson City and around the state through weekly legislative email updates. If you are not receiving these weekly updates, please contact Susan Winkelmann. Nikki Strong, Strong Consulting Group.