The new year brings with it a new legislative session that has elements of familiarity, as well as uncertainty.
Missouri legislators acknowledge its will be anything but a normal legislative session, with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. However, lawmakers may discuss a lot of familiar topics — unfinished business from last year's interrupted session, urgent issues raised by last year's events and the continuing response to the pandemic.
State Sen. Mike Bernskoetter, R-Jefferson City, said it "remains to be seen" whether session will be slow going or gets off to a fast start, given the social-distancing measures that will still be in place because of the pandemic.
Bernskoetter said he expects there will be some sense of urgency, knowing it's possible there may have to be a pause at some point in the event of a COVID-19 outbreak at the Capitol.
"We've proven that we can manage our way through this environment, with safeguards to operate prudently and safely," President Pro Tem Dave Schatz, R-Sullivan, said.
"It's not going to be normal," he acknowledged, but better than the unknowns at the start of the pandemic in Missouri last year.
Bernskoetter anticipates the biggest conversations — in education and on the budget — will be related to COVID-19.
COVID-19 liability is something unfinished that may be taken up early on, Schatz said.
Gov. Mike Parson had expanded the second special legislative session in 2020 to include a call for three sets of liability protections for businesses, health care providers, manufacturers and other organizations during the pandemic.
Senate action on the proposals was delayed by COVID-19 infections. Parson then changed his mind about the legislation that was developed after, he said, new language in a committee substitute that he had not had time to review fell outside the scope of special session.
Schatz also hopes a Wayfair sales tax would be something else that moves forward.
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 is one of two states — the other being Florida — that has not yet enacted a Wayfair tax, and with the pandemic, there's not only been a significant uptick in online shopping, but the state budget is also facing the economic fallout of the pandemic.
The state's budget director estimated in January 2020 that a Wayfair online sales tax could bring in $60 million-$80 million a year for the state.
At the time, Parson wanted Wayfair tax revenue to be directed into a proposed cash operating expense fund that would serve as a rainy day fund for the state in case of economic emergency. Once that fund would be solvent, he proposed that Wayfair collections be used to pay off debt and pay for infrastructure programs done on a cost-share basis.
At the end of regular session last year, the Senate's majority and minority leaders also had differing opinions from one another on whether a Wayfair tax should be revenue- neutral — offset someone as a way to prevent a new tax from being enacted.
Schatz said people's pandemic shopping habits won't last forever, as things someday return to a more normal environment, but people have grown accustomed to shopping online, and "that's going to drive a lot of commerce in that direction."
Events in 2020 also renewed vigor in conversations about police reform, particularly after the death of George Floyd in May triggered protests across the country.
Schatz said if there are common-sense reforms that are necessary to improve the relationship between police and the public, anyone is willing to listen.
He said, however, he's "not going to do something that doesn't make sense" just for the sake of doing something.
There have already been several police reform bills in the House and Senate filed, from lawmakers of both political parties, proposing measures such as banning chokeholds unless justified as a use of lethal force; requiring offices to intervene if a colleague uses excessive force; limiting the use of no-knock warrants; and requiring excessive force complaints to be reported to the state attorney general.
While he and Bernskoetter said they did not have any particular priorities for restoring or cutting budget funding, Schatz said he hopes lawmakers will look at rural broadband internet needs — something else that's had its importance highlighted by the pandemic, as more people work from home.
In terms of their own bills, Bernskoetter said he would especially push for Capitol complex tax credit legislation, which would support the repair and maintenance of Missouri's Capitol complex buildings.
Schatz said he would push for transportation funding — he has pre-filed bills to increase the motor fuel tax and propose a constitutional amendment to enact a minimum taxation of fuel — and to enhance the penalties for illegal gambling.
Schatz's bill on the latter would crack down on suspected illegal video lottery gaming terminals — something that was raised in the Legislature last year, but as with many things, had action on it interrupted by the pandemic. Another Republican senator is proposing to instead regulate video lottery machines.
The Missouri Highway Patrol told a House committee on gaming in October 2019 that there had been enough complaints about "gray-game" or "pre-reveal" gambling devices that some investigators had to be temporarily pulled from other duties to assist the two full-time staff who regularly investigate such complaints.
It had been estimated last year there are an estimated 14,000 unregulated gaming terminals in the state — potentially diverting up to $50 million from the state's lottery, which is used to fund public schools and colleges.
Schatz also expects former Republican state House member and state Sen.-elect Holly Rehder, of Sikeston, will continue to push for a statewide prescription drug monitoring program — intended to help address the opioid addiction public health crisis — that hit a wall among some Republican senators at the end of last spring's session despite bipartisan support among Senate leaders.
Missouri is the last state in the country to establish such a monitoring program. St. Louis County has a PDMP that Schatz has said covers 85-87 percent of Missourians, but not everyone.
Mid-Missouri members of the Missouri House of Representatives have pre-filed a number of bills, many of which they had offered in last year's General Assembly.
Rudy Veit, R-Wardsville, feels particularly strongly about his House Bill 557, which would require operators of a child residential home that is under an investigation concerning abuse or neglect to produce the child for health, safety and well-being assessments.
Under certain conditions, he said, if someone sets up a child residential care facility and says it's a religious facility, the state has no oversight — no background checks, no fire inspection and no safety inspections.
"I don't want to infringe on those facilities, but we want to have some control of them," Veit said.
The state wants to be able to lay eyes on an individual child if there are allegations of abuse, he said.
The bill has bipartisan support, demonstrated in a four-hour committee meeting that has already been held on the matter, Veit said.
"When you read the testimonies of all these individuals, the abuses are horrible," Veit said. "I don't think we should have a hard time getting it passed."
Veit's HB 159 would modify the definition of "renewable energy resources" for the Renewable Energy Standard. It would remove the requirement that a power source be rated for 10 megawatts or less.
"Ameren (Missouri) is very aggressive in using renewable energy," Veit said.
The change would allow Ameren Missouri to count energy created at Bagnell Dam to be considered renewable.
Another bill Veit pre-filed, HB 384, would extend the sunset clause of the Second Injury Fund from Dec. 31, 2021, to Dec. 31, 2026.
The Second Injury Fund compensates injured employees when a current work-related injury combines with a prior disability to create an increased disability, according to the Missouri Department of Labor. The Second Injury Fund is funded through a surcharge Missouri employers pay.
Veit also pre-filed HB 156, which would make it an offense for people required to wear electronic monitoring equipment to neglect to charge the equipment.
State Rep. Travis Fitzwater, R-Holts Summit, pre-filed seven bills, which if passed would modify provisions relating to complaints against a psychologist's license; require schools to offer computer science courses; change provisions associated with condemnation proceedings for broadband infrastructure; establish a task force on right-of-way management; establish a scholarship; or allow personal delivery devices to operate on sidewalks and roadways.
State Rep. Dave Griffith, R-Jefferson City, had offered four bills — HB 388, which would allow the Missouri Department of Revenue to send first class mail instead of certified mail; HB 389, which would establish the commercial vehicle towing advisory committee; HB 390, which would establish a Missouri Purple Star School District program; and HB 391, which would provide Missouri National Guard members be treated as state employees for certain purposes.
"The National Guard bill will allow them to use state vehicles instead of Humvees, which are really costly to use," Griffith said.
He said the National Guard has been working across the state this year — especially when it has traveled to assist with testing for COVID-19.
The DOR bill, Griffith said, could save the state some $18 million in postage.
"Our budget's going to be stretched," he said. "We're looking toward the budget for the upcoming year. We've already got $450 million in withholdings from the governor."
The General Assembly, Griffith said, is going to look at ways to trim the budget even further. The DOR bill is "really a makes-sense way we can do that."
Although committee assignments won't be made until after lawmakers are sworn in this week, state Rep. Sara Walsh, R-Ashland, already has been elected as majority caucus chair by the House Republican Caucus.
House Speaker-elect Rob Vescovo asked members early in December which committees they'd like to serve on, Walsh said.
"I'd like to stay on Budget," she said. "I truly loved serving on that the past several years."
Vescovo will look at the composition of House members, including those who are new, before making those decisions.
Walsh had pre-filed seven bills as of Thursday.
HB 27 would require meeting notices be posted to government bodies' websites and Facebook pages.
That is a modernization to the Sunshine Law, Walsh said.
"This is not changing the public notice. This is not saying we should not print them," she said.
It is simply requiring agencies to publish on their own sites instead of simply placing on their bulletin boards.
"Social media, Facebook — local governments are using that to share with the public, and it's free," Walsh said.
HB 31 would make it a class A misdemeanor to point a laser pointer at a uniformed safety officer, including a peace officer, security guard, firefighter, emergency medical worker, or other uniformed municipal, state or federal officer.
"These laser pointers — they all can cause damage," Walsh said. "It truly is a weapon. Some can cause instantaneous damage."
HB 30 would create an additional restitution option that judges could include in a sentence if someone were convicted of destroying or stealing campaign yard signs, Walsh said. In addition to criminal penalties, a person found guilty of the offense may be ordered to pay $500 or the actual cost of the items damaged, whichever is greater.
A constituent approached Walsh after someone repeatedly vandalized a large Donald Trump sign outside his business, she said.
"We see it happen every election year. It's both sides of the aisle," Walsh said.
Her pre-filed bill that seems to have gotten the most attention is HB 380, Walsh said. The bill would add vehicles and equipment owned, leased or operated by a coroner, medical examiner or forensic investigator of a county's Medical Examiner's Office to use fixed, flashing, or rotating red or red and blue lights when responding to crime scenes, accidents or other scenes where they've been summoned by law enforcement officers.
Often the forensic examiners and coroners who respond to a crime or accident scene arrive after traffic has backed up. Many of these situations occur in the dead of night, Walsh said.
"Law enforcement officers are waiting for these coroners. These folks don't have the ability to use flashing lights — they are driving in their own vehicles," Walsh said. "Citizens, thinking they are another citizen cutting in, block them."
These responding personnel are professionals, often elected officials.
"It has so much merit to it," Walsh said, "that we will work out any kinds of issues that might come up."
The office of Sen. John Rizzo, D-Independence, who is the Senate minority leader, did not immediately return request for comment for this story. The News Tribune also did not receive a response from state Sen. Jeanie Riddle, R-Mokane.