By BRENT MARTIN
St. Joseph Post
It is difficult to use one word to describe the just-concluded Missouri legislative session.
You could use unusual, different, odd, even eerie; all seem to fall short.
“Well, I will have to say with my 17 years of service, both in the House and the Senate, this has been the most unusual session that we have ever had,” state Sen. Dan Hegeman of Cosby tells St. Joseph Post.
Hegeman has more experience than most in these days of term limits, having served in the Missouri House pre-term limits before winning election to the Senate.
Legislators left on the annual week-long spring break and didn’t return until six weeks later, due to COVID-19 concerns, losing valuable legislative days.
Hegeman, chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, says when lawmakers did return, they faced the economic destruction COVID-19 restrictions left in their wake.
“We started out by having plenty of revenue coming in and looking at a rosy scenario and that turned on a dime to looking at a negative revenue situation, then having to cut the budget by $700 million from the governor’s original recommendations,” Hegeman says.
The primary reason legislators did return to Jefferson City was to address the state budget. Lawmakers met their constitutional deadline and approved a nearly $35 billion state budget, which likely will have to be revised once again later in the year. Legislators also completed work on some major pieces of legislation, but far fewer bills passed this year than most, despite the best efforts of many lawmakers.
“There were a lot of bills added on to a lot of bills and they were coming fast and furious there in the last two weeks,” state Rep. Bill Falkner of St. Joseph tells St. Joseph Post, pointing out that since the legislature returned with only three weeks in the session, sponsors attempted to pass bills by combining them with others.
Some of those omnibus bills did make it to the finish line and onto Gov. Mike Parson’s desks. Others sank under their own weight.
Though Falkner says the legislature got a lot done in a short amount of time, it did fail to approve an online sales tax bill or a prescription drug monitoring program, two bills which likely needed more time to win approval.
It was the atmosphere which changed the most.
State Sen. Tony Luetkemeyer of Parkville says COVID-19 restrictions were evident as soon as you entered the state Capitol.
“The experience of walking in and having National Guardsmen stationed at each of the entry points and taking everybody’s temperature and asking you CDC health questions before you’re admitted into the building; it just made for a very different experience,” Luetkemeyer relates to St. Joseph Post.
State Rep. Brenda Shields of St. Joseph says some aspects of the coronavirus-shortened session were more obvious than others.
“I wore a mask the entire time I was down there, some of my other colleagues chose not to, but it was difficult to communicate through a mask,” Shields tells us, adding social distancing also created communication complications.
Other differences had more of a subtle effect, changing the atmosphere usually associated with the final three weeks of a legislative session, according to state Rep. Shelia Solon of St. Joseph.
“Visitors weren’t in the building,” Solon tells St. Joseph Post. “Normally we have a Capitol full of children visiting the Capitol and visitors and lobbyists and all kinds of people coming in to protest. The rotunda is usually packed full of people those last few weeks of session. So, the building was very quiet.”
Still, Solon says lawmakers were able to get some major legislation passed, though not nearly the number of bills they usually approve. She points out, aside from budget bills, legislators approved only around 30 bills. The usual number is at least three times that many.
Still, state Rep. Brenda Shields of St. Joseph says, despite everything, the legislature finished the session strong.
“In the end, I think that we were extremely effective,” Shields says. “I think that when you elect your individuals you elect those individuals who are going to go down and work hard to represent your values in the legislature and I think that through those last three weeks that we were together, I think that we put our best effort together to create a good legislative session.”