The COVID-19 pandemic's effects on Missouri will linger for some time, lawmakers said Friday, the last day of the legislative session.
As part of relief from the pandemic, Gov. Mike Parson pushed back the state income tax filing deadline by three months. And lawmakers can only guess at the revenue the pandemic has cost the state, Rep. Dave Griffith, R-Jefferson City, said.
"Without having an accurate forecast of revenue because of the filing date change to July 15, it will be difficult to have a clear picture of our revenue," Griffith said. "Given the circumstances of the pandemic, as a whole, I think we did the best we could do."
With a few hours left in the session, the News Tribune spoke with Sen. Mike Bernskoetter, R-Jefferson City. He still hoped the Senate might take up legislation on elections that included no-excuse absentee mail-in ballot voting for 2020 elections.
Senate Bill 631 had a host of elections-related provisions in it, attached by a House amendment — provisions that also included the extension of the sunset on the collection of fees by the secretary of state for a technology trust fund. Bernskoetter had sponsored legislation of his own to offer that extension.
Bernskoetter said he did not have any concerns about the 2021 budget the Legislature passed.
It's possible lawmakers may return sometime later this year for a special session to work on a 2021 supplemental budget, given that the pandemic may lead to different outcomes on revenue and expenses than the projections lawmakers worked with when they passed next year's budget earlier this month.
Bernskoetter said he could not think of any other legislation to return for in a special session, other than a supplemental budget.
"We don't know when (the pandemic) is going to be over," he said.
While the pandemic created a "definitely weird" session, with lawmakers taking precautionary absences from the Capitol for weeks at a time in March and April, Bernskoetter was pleased overall with how the session had gone and how lawmakers adapted.
The Senate chamber felt safe this session, he said, with temperature and health screenings in place for people entering the Capitol once the pandemic took hold.
The volume of calls from his constituents was probably less than it would have been normally, but "the people that asked for help really needed help" — be it with unemployment issues or navigating state departments, he said.
Late last week, the Legislature put the finishing touches on the 2021 budget — a budget that included cuts of $227 million from this year's budget. And Parson warned it was likely lawmakers would have to come back before July to slash even more.
Effects of the pandemic may call for more drastic measures, Rep. Rudy Veit, R-Wardsville, said.
"I can see there may be a need for a special session for the budget," he said.
The pandemic caused the Capitol to shut down for weeks in the midst of the session, which in turn shrank the time available for lawmakers to pass bills and finalize the budget.
The House was able to pass about half the quantity of bills it had last year.
Although the number of bills passed through the chamber was low, legislation lawmakers prioritized was amended to a number of bills, said Sara Walsh, R-Ashland. There were numerous small omnibus bills like that of Rep. Dave Wood, R-Versailles, which passed Friday, she said.
His House Bill 1682 started out as a bill prohibiting using e-cigarettes (or vaping) in indoor areas or on school buses. But it went through a number of changes when it reached the Senate, he said. All of which he favored.
Some changes include designating May as Mental Health Awareness Month, July as Minority Mental Health Awareness Month and September as Deaf Awareness Month. Other changes require compliance with regulations concerning external defibrillators, testing external defibrillators and inspections of external defibrillators. The bill eliminates mileage limitations for physician assistants attending patients in ambulances. It authorizes emergency medical personnel outside hospitals to comply with do-not-resuscitate protocols when outside a hospital setting. The bill creates a state ombudsman for long-term care facility residents to assure veterans are receiving proper care in veterans' homes. It prohibits the manufacture of any medical marijuana-infused products that are packaged to look like gummy bear candy. Geometric shapes are acceptable. The bill requires all officer, manager, contractors, employees and other staff licensed or certified to work in medical marijuana facilities to submit fingerprints to the Missouri Highway Patrol. The bill also requires a portion of any monetary settlement the state receives from pharmaceutical companies because of the opioid epidemic be set aside for opioid treatment and prevention programs.
Walsh said the lawmakers reached a number of her goals. She was able to get money for Missouri Task Force One, one of 28 urban search and rescue teams in the United States — designed to assist local emergency agencies facing disaster responses at home and in other states.
"I worked to get money in there that had been zeroed out by a former governor," Walsh said.
The state Senate also contributed to the task force by finding an extra $100,000 in federal funding for it, she said.
And, the Missouri State Defense Force, a civilian reserve military force serving parallel to the Missouri National Guard, that assists Missourians during crises, also received additional funding, Walsh said.
And, she said she championed and helped get funding for the University of Missouri NextGen Precision Health Initiative, which strives to find treatments and cures for society's toughest diseases.
One of the last bills to pass was Walsh's bill asking that the city of Ashland be allowed to place a lodging tax on the November ballot. If voters approve it, the legislation would allow Ashland to collect a transient guest tax of no more than 5 percent per occupied room per night. The tax would bring in about $137,000 annually.
This session marked the end of their tenures for two Mid-Missouri representatives. Wood and Rep. Rocky Miller, R-Lake Ozark, each has served eight years and cannot run again because of term limits.
As is tradition in the chamber, lawmakers who were serving their final session addressed their colleagues.
"This is truly a family," Wood said. "When you look back on your time on this, and the things we've experienced together, you have to think of the people that were there for you in very difficult situations."
Over his eight years, Wood said, he lost both his parents and some friends, received a cancer diagnosis, underwent cancer surgery and radiation treatments, broke a leg and received four grandchildren.
"The support that you have — freshmen — it just grows," he said. "It doesn't stop."
People in the chamber get closer and closer, even with those with whom there are disagreements, he said.
Wood said he couldn't remember specifics about much he had done during his time in the House, but he would remember the people who were there.
A big disappointment, Griffith said, was that state pay raises the governor and others committed to early in the session had to be dropped from the budget.
"These are dedicated public servants who need to be compensated for their hard work," Griffith said.
He said another disappointment was the Legislature had to cut funding for treatment courts by $7 million.
Somewhat offsetting disappointments were a couple of victories.
Griffith's bill creating a Central Missouri Honor Flight license plate was included in an omnibus transportation bill that passed. Also passing was Senate Concurrent Resolution 32, which Bernskoetter sponsored. Griffith sponsored the identical bill in the House. The bill urges all Missouri members of the U.S. Senate to support and contribute to the consideration and passage of the "Bring Our Heroes Home Act," which sets forth a process for the declassification of POW/MIA records. It also calls on all members of the Missouri congressional delegation to lend their influence tote cause of resolving the cases of unaccounted Missouri service members.