After a quick holiday break, Missouri lawmakers will head back to Jefferson City for the beginning of the 2021 legislative session on Wednesday.
The coronavirus upended the session in 2020, and despite tens of thousands of Missourians already receiving the first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine, it’ll still be a dominating factor this year.
“We recognize that COVID is here and it’s not going away anytime soon, but we also recognize that as a Legislature, we have an obligation to citizens,” said incoming Speaker of the House Rob Vescovo, R-Arnold. “Which is to keep working.”
Vescovo said that he may have to work around the virus and that there will likely be more safety precautions throughout the Capitol, but he’s adamant that his chamber will be as busy as any other year.
“As far as I’m concerned, the session is on and we’re going to continue to work,” Vescovo said. “That doesn’t mean we won’t have outbreaks and things won’t change on a daily basis, but we do plan on working.”
The statehouse brings in lawmakers, lobbyists, reporters and witnesses to offer testimony from all corners of the state. Despite scientific data and pleas from public health officials, Senate Minority Leader John Rizzo, D-Independence, said he doesn’t expect to see a mask mandate this year, either.
“We have multiple senators who won’t wear masks on the Republican side,” Rizzo said. “I think if there were to be a mask mandate it would be something that the body would all vote on and agree to. I just don’t see the Republican caucus doing that.”
House Minority Leader Crystal Quade, D-Springfield, said she is hearing much of the same. As for day-to-day operations, Quade said she has not received any notice that the debate format will change or time on the floor would be limited.
“The only change that I have been told about is, obviously swearing in will be different and the nonpartisan staff are requesting that masks are worn in their offices,” Quade said. “So, like the clerk’s office, research, those types of places, but beyond that no. There are no changes.”
Gov. Mike Parson and other statewide officeholders will be sworn in on the steps outside the Capitol on Monday. The 163 members of the House will be sworn into office in groups instead of having lawmakers and their families in the chamber at the same time.
Senate Majority Leader Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, said one major change is allowing experts to testify virtually during committee hearings. He said leadership is still working out the details of how it will operate.
“We want to do as much work as we can while still being mindful that we’re not entirely out of the woods yet,” Rowden said. “It literally is a day-by-day and maybe even an hour-by-hour sort of scenario. I’m ready for that, I think we’re ready for that, and I’ve asked the caucus to be ready for that.”
While many people are now familiar with video conferencing or Zoom calls after months of quarantine and working from home, Rizzo said there could be issues for the Legislature in terms of who is afforded the opportunity to call in.
“You have to couch it exactly right,” Rizzo said. “If you have a very contentious bill and you have an opportunity to do the Zoom situation, you could end up with 500 people from Florida that have been recruited to come testify because now they can just roll out of bed and jump on a computer.”
Leadership is also considering having a holding area, where experts could wait in a secluded place and be brought into the hearing room to testify individually. Vescovo said that even though these are all options being considered, participating in person is still going to be the expectation.
“If there is a director of a state department that thinks that we want them to testify virtually, they would be wrong,” Vescovo said.
As for topics on the agenda, passing a balanced state budget is about the only guarantee. After months of economic difficulties due to the coronavirus, Rowden said there is a lot of uncertainty surrounding this year’s budget negotiations.
“We all know what we want to do,” Rowden said. “We want to spend money on things that we value: education, infrastructure, workforce development and economic development — things that move the state forward. But there’s enough uncertainty for the moment that you prepare for a world where you’ve got to make cuts, and if you don’t have to make cuts, you’re moving in a better direction.”
Expanding Medicaid is expected to be one of the more contentious conversations when looking at the budget. While experts suggest it could eventually save the state money, the new program that voters approved in August will include upfront costs. With a state budget that is already stretched thin because of the economic effects of the coronavirus, lawmakers may have to get creative in figuring out how to pay for it.
“We know that the other side is already having conversations about how to lessen the population to curb costs,” Quade said about the idea of mandating work requirements for the Medicaid population. “So, for us it’s going to be upholding the will of voters and making sure that we implement it fully.”
In addition to dealing with the state budget, Quade said ensuring the federal coronavirus relief funds have proper oversight is the top priority for her caucus.
“Especially now that it’s been extended, in terms of the federal guidelines of when payouts are,” Quade said. “But making sure that money is being spent appropriately and that we’re helping Missouri businesses and families.”
Treasurer Scott Fitzpatrick’s website allows Missourians to track federal coronavirus relief funds after they have been sent out to the designated recipients.
Legislators are also looking to tackle COVID-19 liability protections for businesses, schools and health care facilities. Parson had included this in the second special legislative session that wrapped up last month, but he eventually removed it from the agenda. This allowed lawmakers to get a jump on the conversation, and Rizzo said he expects robust debate in this area as well.
“The biggest thing you have to look at giving people immunity from being sued over COVID issues, is that the bill goes so far that it eliminates safety protocols,” Rizzo said.
Vescovo was one of the legislators who encouraged Parson to include COVID-19 liability in his special session call, and he said it is an important issue he expects the House to bring up. Like Rizzo, he recognizes the Legislature will need to be careful when crafting the proposal in order to ensure that employees are still protected as the pandemic rages on.
A prescription drug monitoring program, sports betting and legalizing recreational marijuana are all likely issues to be considered. And, after months of racial tension and protests in 2020, Democrats and the Legislative Black Caucus will be pushing for police reform.
“Nobody wants to defund the police, I just want to be clear about that,” Rizzo said. “But there are some different conversations that need to be had when it comes to chokeholds, in regards to the militarization of the police departments in our state.”
Parson will lay out his budget proposal and give his State of the State address later this month, which will shed more light on his priorities.
Every legislative session results in crucial policy discussion. But in 2021, Missourians can expect to have more access, with the opportunity to be more involved, as both chambers ramp up technological options to participate and observe.