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Local state lawmakers are confident in the Missouri House and Senate's ability to return to the Capitol for budget business this week, but the COVID-19 pandemic still leaves uncertainty about how exactly that process will work.
"I'm not saying we have to start at square one," said Rep. Dave Griffith, R-Jefferson City, but he added things will look different in this legislative session when it comes to crafting a state budget.
In a typical year — as 2020 at least started out to be — Missouri's governor proposes a budget with priorities and presents those to the General Assembly during the State of the State address, as Gov. Mike Parson did in January.
The House then crafts a budget and passes it on to the Senate.
As the pandemic has developed, however, the 2021 fiscal year budget Parson proposed has probably become fairly useless as a guide for lawmakers.
Everything this month, Parson and the state's budget director, Dan Haug, announced an anticipated $500 million shortfall for the state's budget through June, and Parson has since enacted two major sets of spending restrictions for the rest of the current fiscal year, together totaling approximately $227 million in cuts.
Lawmakers are coming back to Jefferson City this week to work on next year's budget, which would be for July 1 and onward, but it's likely next year's budget will also be severely affected by the economic fallout from the pandemic — including unemployment, lost sales tax revenue, deferred income tax revenue that won't even be available until after July 15, and lost revenue from casinos that are closed.
The state has received billions of dollars in emergency federal aid for expenses related to the pandemic — with more money entitled to the state and likely even more in the works — but that money can't be used to plug holes in the budget.
Griffith said infrastructure, workforce development, K-12 education and veterans are his budget priorities.
With casinos shut down, he said the Missouri Veterans Commission's funding for veterans' homes has come to a halt, and that's a major concern of his.
When asked about any of his priorities for next year's budget, Sen. Mike Bernskotter, R-Jefferson City, said he's more concerned for the moment about getting through the rest of this year's budget — to see what ends up being cut and to determine "where all the pain's going to be."
Parson has said anything is on the table in terms of future budget cuts, including early retirements or other such measures with state employees that have been done in the past — though none of that has happened so far, he added Thursday.
"There's nothing guaranteed about the state being able to get through this process without having to feel a little bit of the pain, too," Parson said.
Griffith and Rep. Rudy Veit, R-Wardsville, both anticipated the Legislature needing to come back later this year for a special session to pass a supplemental budget for 2021 because the forecast is so uncertain.
The main reason the Legislature is coming back this week is because there's a constitutional obligation to pass a budget for next year by May 8.
The Legislature has already come back once during the pandemic to pass a supplemental budget to get through the end of June.
Griffith said that showed that business could be done, albeit in a different way than before, with legislators listening from their offices.
Griffith expects a similar process this week — with lawmakers being called into the House chamber a few at a time for votes and able to call the House speaker while he's on the dais in the chamber.
Veit preferred lawmakers be called into the chamber in larger groups — it was four at a time before — otherwise votes will take too long, but he added everyone should wear a mask.
Bernskoetter said he was only around the Senate one day during the supplemental budget process, but he thought it had worked.
The Senate's budget committee had met in a committee room, with as much social distancing as could be had in the space, and senators voted together in the chamber.
"We will be there every day, Monday through Friday, for the next three weeks," Bernskoetter said, and though he expected the budget will be the main focus of attention, there will be other things going on.
He added, though, most legislation will be tied to the pandemic in one way or another.
The Senate's Democratic Caucus's leader, Sen. John Rizzo, of Independence, said in a statement Friday that while the caucus is also committed to passing a balanced budget by May 8, "The Missouri General Assembly should lead by example, take the right precautions, and focus on only the budget and COVID-19-related issues."
Rizzo added, among other safety precautions, "anyone seeking to enter the Capitol should undergo testing to prevent spreading the virus back in their communities."
In terms of other legislation, Bernskoetter and Veit said they were interested in a "Wayfair" online sales tax being discussed.
A Wayfair tax gets its name from the U.S. Supreme Court case in which it was decided out-of-state sellers can be required to collect and remit a state sales tax.
Missouri legislators had already been working to pass such a tax this session; Missouri is one of two states — the other being Florida — that has not yet enacted a Wayfair tax.
Haug has said a Wayfair tax could bring in $80 million a year for Missouri.
Bernskoetter hoped a compromise could be reached so rather than being revenue neutral, a Wayfair tax could increase revenue for the state, if passed and enacted.
Veit said, though he is a conservative, "we have to balance our budget, and that means being frugal with our expenditures but also looking at sources of revenue" to provide basic needs — and that means an obligation to at least look at tax increases.
"I think it's time we also take a look at our gas tax," he said, in order to make sure the state has the maximum funds available to it in case the federal government supports infrastructure in a way that involves matching funds from states.
Highway funding needed to be addressed years ago, Veit said, but "it's clearly much more urgent."
Bernskoetter said he would like to see a House bill that he's carrying passed that deals with expanding license reciprocity — beyond legislation Parson signed last week expanding license reciprocity for military members' spouses.
Griffith mentioned some of his own legislation, including a Capitol complex tax credit bill that would repair and maintain the buildings in the complex, a resolution about prisoners of war and soldiers missing in action, and honor flight recognition.
Bernskoetter also has some similar legislation in the Senate, though he did not mention it.
Griffith said some policy issue bills that are similar to one another could be lumped together into an omnibus bill, and though he's "not a real big fan of that," it's a way to get things through.
Veit said bills that have made it from the House to the Senate, and vice versa, should be addressed — bills that have passed with a high percentage of the vote and are needed for efficient operation of government.
Sen. Jeanie Riddle, R-Mokane, and the office of Rep. Travis Fitzwater, R-Holts Summit, did not immediately return request for comment.
On the web
Streaming options for Senate hearings and chamber action are available at www.senate.mo.gov/hearingsschedule/hrings.htm, along with more information on how to submit written testimony in lieu of in-person testimony.
House streaming feeds are available at house.mo.gov/MediaCenter.aspx?selected=VideoFeeds.