JEFFERSON CITY — The last few weeks of Missouri’s legislative session are always hectic, but amid a global pandemic, the word took on a new meaning.
Republican lawmakers, who had projected confidence in meeting their goals at the beginning of the session, were forced to downsize their ambitions to fit a COVID-19-shortened time frame. The 2020 session saw lawmakers divided not just by party lines but by 6 feet of social distance. However, such precautions were in most cases short-lived.
For the eighth year, lawmakers failed to approve a prescription drug monitoring program that would see Missouri join the rest of the country; the state will retain its spot as one of the few states left that hasn’t passed an online sales tax.
The debate over how to best respond to gun violence in the state continues unresolved. The issues of seclusion rooms in schools and recording special education meetings, which had broad bipartisan support, failed to make it to the finish line. Supporters of charter schools will have to wait until next session for any changes to the way the state handles them.
But lawmakers were successful on a number of issues. A top priority for Republican leadership, challenging Clean Missouri, is headed to voters in the fall. A public safety bill, including major changes to sentencing regulations, passed through both bodies in the 12th hour. Legislation creating a “Sexual Assault Survivors’ Bill of Rights” received final approval from Missouri lawmakers. Medical marijuana, the state’s newest industry, is staring down new regulations passed this session. And on a time crunch, lawmakers were able to approve a budget for FY2021.
Because lawmakers relied in many cases on massive omnibus bills that were loaded with amendments, some of the other legislation passed may not become fully known for some time.
Despite passing a budget, lawmakers are in the dark when it comes to the revenue they can expect for 2021. They narrowly avoided cuts to higher education by planning for further federal relief funding, but if the money doesn’t come, colleges and universities across the state would see their funding slashed by 10%.
Sen. Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, said he was proud of the results of the truncated session.
“We had to find the right balance between coming back and acting like we weren’t in the middle of a global pandemic while also understanding that there are other elements of life that continue to move forward,” Rowden said. “Some of (those things) are things that certainly we felt necessary to address.”
Democrats questioned Republicans’ definition of “necessary.”
House minority leader Crystal Quade, D-Springfield, said lawmakers did not focus on the pandemic “in virtually any capacity,” because Republicans “prioritized protecting their political power.”
“During these final weeks of the legislative session, protecting Missourians from COVID-19 and rebuilding our economy were the only priorities that mattered,” Quade said. “To the detriment of our state, the majority party had different ideas.”
In 2018, 62 percent of voters approved Amendment 1, a ballot initiative commonly referred to as Clean Missouri. The amendment included changes to the redistricting process, lobbying, campaign finance and public records.
After an unsuccessful attempt to send the issue back to the voters last year, Republican lawmakers advanced a proposal to do just that. The new ballot initiative would roll back a majority of the changes made by Clean Missouri, including eliminating the role of a nonpartisan state demographer. The person chosen to fill the position would redraw the state’s district lines, which has caused concerns that Republicans could lose seats.
A common catchphrase encapsulated many Republicans’ willingness to challenge voters’ previous decision: “If you love Clean Missouri, you’ll love Cleaner Missouri.” Republicans have maintained that voters didn’t understand the language of the amendment on the ballot.
The move was met with disdain from most Democratic lawmakers, who said “Dirty Missouri” disregards the decision Missourians made only two years prior.
In the months before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, lawmakers from both sides of the aisle grilled state officials over their handling of Missouri’s fledgling medical marijuana program.
More than 800 lawsuits were filed against the state over its licensing procedure, which applicants said gave unfair advantages to certain businesses. Complaints about discrepancies in the way applications were scored were common, and several suits alleged racial discrimination in the awarding of licenses. Many called for the state to grant more licenses.
Hearings on the licensing process, however, came to a halt as COVID-19 spread through the state. On the floor, lawmakers pressed forward with several other pieces of legislation related to medical marijuana.
Among them, an act to prohibit the sale of marijuana edibles, packaging or logos in the shape of a human, animal or fruit was passed. Geometric shapes will still be allowed. Further, the Department of Health & Senior Services was instructed to make rules prohibiting edible designs intended to appeal to minors and develop a process wherein businesses can seek approval of product designs before manufacturing or sales.
In the same piece of legislation, lawmakers passed an act to require all facility employees and owners to submit fingerprints to the Highway Patrol for a state and federal criminal background check. The patrol will share the results of the background check with DHSS.
Prescription drug monitoring
Few pieces of legislation have languished in the state capitol as long as the Narcotics Control Act. After eight years, the push to make Missouri the last state to implement a prescription drug monitoring program was killed again on the final day of the session.
The legislation would have enacted a statewide electronic prescription-monitoring database to track the prescription of drugs with potential for abuse. Currently, a monitoring program led by St. Louis County covers 75 jurisdictions, about 85% of Missourians, according to previous reporting.
But members of the Conservative Caucus opposed it after the House refused to accept a version of the bill that had passed the Senate earlier. Initially, the Senate version of the bill included language that increased penalties related to fentanyl. The House wanted to keep the focus on PDMP, angering members of the Senate.
“Why should the Senate bail the Missouri House of Representatives out on this bill when they chose to play political games in the first place, when they’ve had every opportunity going back to February to pass this bill?” Sen. Bill Eigel, R-Weldon Spring, asked.
Public safety and gun violence
At the start of the legislative session, more than 70 gun-related bills were proposed by lawmakers, the most in a decade. But with the interruption of the session from COVID-19, few made it to the end.
Lawmakers passed SB 600, an omnibus bill related to public safety. It created the offense of vehicle hijacking, increased the number of crimes not eligible for probation and bumped unlawful possession of a firearm from a Class D felony to a Class C felony.
It also increased the minimum sentencing requirements for people who committed armed criminal action with a weapon they unlawfully possessed; a first offense went from three years to five. Additionally, no one convicted for armed criminal action will be eligible for parole.
The controversial Second Amendment Preservation Act sponsored by Rep. Jered Taylor, R-Republic, was stripped from the bill. It would have nullified all federal gun laws. Critics said that would increase tensions between federal and local law enforcement, as well as potentially make more difficult any anti-gun violence efforts in the cities.
Lawmakers rushed back to the Capitol to pass a budget for FY2021, but the numbers laid out for the next year are hazy at best. The state must weather sharp drops in revenue caused by the pandemic — this year, overall revenues have already dropped 6% compared to the same time last year, according to a report from The Associated Press. In April alone, revenues dropped more than 54% compared to the previous April, in large part because of a delay in state income tax deadlines.
A House budget proposal would have cut 10% from higher education, but a compromise with the Senate restored those cuts — with a catch. The colleges will only be spared from the cuts if the federal government continues to provide financial assistance during the crisis.
In total, lawmakers stripped $700 million from Gov. Mike Parson’s initial budget proposal. That proposal was based on revenue estimates before COVID-19 struck the state.
Missouri lawmakers have filed legislation that would tax and regulated “grey box” slot machines, often found in Missouri gas stations and truck stops, which are essentially illegal under state law. The machine owners argue that the slots are legal because of technical differences between the gray box machines and regulated slot machines.
However, the Missouri Gaming Commission still sees them as “gambling devices,” which are considered illegal outside of licensed casinos. The gray boxes are unregulated, untaxed, and it’s unclear whose job it is to seek out and remove them.
During the 2020 legislative session, two bills with different tax systems were proposed in the House of Representatives. Though these bills would have given the state, video slot machine suppliers, businesses and local municipalities a cut of the net revenue, slightly more would have been allocated to government resources — including education. Momentum on the bills halted during the pandemic-shortened legislative session, but the effort to expand video gambling will continue when lawmakers reconvene.
After an investigation in Illinois brought national attention to the issue of seclusion rooms in public schools, a bipartisan group of lawmakers pushed for legislation that would put rules in place on schools utilizing seclusion and restraint techniques on students. After gaining momentum at the beginning of the session, however, the effort stalled.
Another issue in public schools was the fight to allow parents to record IEP meetings, where staff speak to parents of kids with special needs about their child’s learning plan. The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Chuck Bayse, R-Rocheport, said the complex terminology used in the meeting can confuse parents. Additionally, oftentimes only one parent can attend a meeting because of work and therefore misses all that was said in the meeting. Despite being referred to a committee as early as January, it failed to get traction in the final weeks of session.
A bill known as the “Missouri Nondiscrimination Act,” that would outlaw discrimination on the basis of gender identity or sexual orientation stalled yet again this year in the legislature. Advocates have been trying for more than two decades to pass the law.
The bill, which has been introduced in the House 22 times, would protect over 180,000 LGBTQ individuals in Missouri from discrimination by adding sexual orientation and gender identity to the list of protected classes in the Missouri Human Rights Act.
Rep. Greg Razer, D-Kansas City, and Rep. Tom Hannegan, R-St. Charles, took time to advocate for the bill on Thursday after it was clear that it would not pass again this year.
Razer pointed out that he and Hannegan both pay taxes in the state and are also both open about the fact that they’re gay men.
“Yet, as taxpaying citizens, we don’t have all the same rights as every other citizen in this state, do we?” Razer asked.
“No we don’t,” Hannegan confirmed. “I think people don’t understand that. Some people will actually say to me, ‘Really, that goes on in the state of Missouri? You don’t have those rights?’”
Once again, legislation to further charter schools and “school choice” options died before it reached the governor’s desk.
Missouri legislators proposed several bills that would allow charter schools in dozens more districts. They could be established within the state’s four charter counties, all of which are in the St. Louis and Kansas City areas, and in municipalities with populations of more than 30,000.
A push for charter school expansion last year failed after a bipartisan filibuster. But charter school opponents lost a key ally when Sen. Gary Romine left the Senate. Gov. Parson appointed him to the State Tax Commission earlier this year.
Still, legislation stalled after the coronavirus pandemic disrupted the session.
Passing a Wayfair tax would allow the state to charge sales tax on purchases from more out-of-state businesses such as online retailers. But for now, Missouri will remain one of several states without the online tax on the books.
After making it onto the Senate floor, lawmakers opted to shelve the issue instead of taking a vote. The Wayfair tax is controversial even within party lines — members of the Conservative Caucus said they had no appetite for passing the tax unless there was an accompanying cut to another kind of tax.
Reporters Titus Wu, Spencer Norris, Madison Czopek, Ashlyn O’Hara and Maria Benevento contributed to this report.