Missouri's legislature faces many COVID-19 issues

By Phill Brooks
    Missouri's General Assembly faces an historic challenges for the final three weeks of the 2020 regular session. The budget tops the list with a projected $1 billion or even higher revenue loss for the spending year that begins July 1.


    Gov. Mike Parson acknowledged the challenge April 17 when he disclosed the higher deficit estimate than previously anticipated. "I've never seen a deficit like that and it's going to take some time to figure out how we go through that and how we put a budget together."
    Compounding the problem, as Parson noted, is that Missouri does not know how much money the state ultimately will get from the federal government to address COVID-19 budget problems. Another complication is that when the legislature returns to the Capitol, they'll have less than two weeks to pass a budget. That's because Missouri's Constitution requires passing a budget one week before the mandatory May 15 adjournment.
    Deciding where to impose that $1 billion shortfall in revenue will not be easy. Among the state's biggest budget items, a major cut to local school funds would seem a no-go idea in an election year.
    The Social Services Department is the state's next biggest spender of state dollars. But cutting that budget would require cuts in Medicaid at a time the state is facing a health crisis. Corrections is another big spender. But cutting that department's budget could force early release of convicted felons. Many of the other departments have legally required spending items or have budgets too small to make much of a difference in the state's overall spending.
    That leaves higher education. So often when the state has faced a revenue shortfall, it's been an easy target because public colleges and universities can get more money by raising fees and tuition.
    But sometimes when the legislature is facing a tough budget decision, it simply dumps the problem on the governor by passing a bloated budget—forcing the governor to make the difficult and politically dangerous decisions about where to cut. While those difficult budget decisions are at the forefront for legislators before their May 8 budget deadline, there are some non-budget issues that might pop up.
    Democratic leaders have argued the session should be limited to the budget and issues involving COVID-19. For many Democrats, one of those COVID-19 issues likely will be to allow anyone to vote by absentee ballot to avoid crowds at polling places later this year.
    The governor already has rejected that idea. And in a highly partisan Republican legislature, a measure pushed by Democrats likely would be an uphill effort.
    Republicans have their own partisan issues. One would seek voter repeal of the Clean Missouri constitutional amendment that gives the state auditor, currently a Democrat, a major role in re-drawing state legislative districts in 2021.
    Another top priority for some GOP lawmakers has been to reimpose the photo ID requirement for voting that the Supreme Court has struck down. Then, there is what had been one of the biggest issues for this session before COVID-19—gun violence. The deep partisan divide between restricting gun access versus imposing tougher sentences for gun-related crimes would seem to make that a no-go issue in the abbreviated session.
    There are, however, some less partisan issues just a few votes away from passage. At the top of that list might be an ultimate House-Senate compromise to the legislative gridlock on establishing a program to monitor prescriptions of addictive narcotics.
    Other less controversial issues include expanding anti-drug laws to cover fentanyl, giving relatives the right to place cameras in nursing-home rooms and letting city police live outside their cities.
    But this might be a budget-only session. The governor has limited his legislative agenda to the budget.
    A few weeks earlier the Senate's Republican leader, Caleb Rowden, voiced a similar thought: "I think if we get a budget done...I think we're OK." Maybe the magnitude of Coronavirus does make it OK to limit the agenda and leave other issues for another day.
    EDITOR’S NOTE: Phill Brooks has been a Missouri statehouse reporter since 1970, making him dean of the statehouse press corps. He is the statehouse correspondent for KMOX Radio, director of MDN and an emeritus faculty member of the Missouri School of Journalism. He has covered every governor since the late Warren Hearnes.

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