Things are happening (or not) in the Missouri state capitol building that never have been seen in recent memory. The threat of the coronavirus (COVID-19) spreading in Missouri resulted in the Missouri Senate canceling its regular session this week, a full week before next week’s previously scheduled spring break. The Senate has already approved several of its priority bills for 2020.
Meanwhile, members of the House of Representatives were in the capitol building this week as the House primarily focused on the FY 2021 state budget. The House Budget Committee met on both Sunday and into the early morning hours of Monday, marking-up and putting its finishing touches on the 13 budget bills. The bills came out of committee after 12 hours of debate, but the House elected to not bring the bills to the floor this week, instead indicating it will consider the budget bills when the House returns. This in part is to address any revenue issues and spending issues the coronavirus has on the state’s budget. In addition, the House discussed the inevitable loss of revenue that will occur as a result of this health crisis and the loss of employment. They discussed the very real possibility of withholds for the current budget year. The Governor has also discussed this and is prepared to use some money reserves and his authority to withhold through FY20. The House held sporadic technical sessions in its chamber a few times during this week, and several House committees met to vote on bills in “executive session.”
Action by the House Judiciary Committee this week was spurred on due to concerns with the ability of state and local governmental bodies to govern when issues arise such as the coronavirus pandemic. The Judiciary Committee met on Monday morning to hear House Bill 2725, a bill allowing public governmental bodies to close physical meetings to the public when states of emergency are declared during disease outbreaks. HB 2725 was fast-tracked in the House, quicker than any legislation in recent memory, as the bill was heard, voted “Do Pass” by the Judiciary Committee, and then voted “Do Pass” by a House Rules Committee, all in one day. That’s a process that usually takes 7 to 10 days. The bill remains on the House perfection calendar.
The House was in session for just more than three hours Wednesday morning and afternoon, perfecting, third reading and passing two bills, including House Bill 2014, a supplemental budget bill which was amended to adjust state funding related to the coronavirus emergency. The House adjourned on Wednesday at 3:40 p.m. and will take spring break next week through March 27. However, exactly when the General Assembly will resume remains to be seen due to the coronavirus threat.
One thing is for sure. The budget bills are now tee’d up for House debate when legislators return to the capitol.
In his closing comments before adjournment on Wednesday, Speaker of the House Elijah Haahr (R-Springfield) said it’s unlikely the General Assembly will return the week after spring break. “We don’t know yet when we’ll reconvene,” he said, telling House members they will have at least 48 hours’ notice of when to return to Jefferson City. He also said the capitol building will undergo “sanitation and cleaning from top to bottom,” beginning Thursday.
So far during the 2020 legislative session, 79 bills originating in the House have been passed by the House and sent to the Senate. And, 29 bills originating in the Senate have been passed by the Senate and sent to the House.
On March 13, Governor Mike Parson issued Executive Order 20-02 regarding the coronavirus threat. The purpose of the Executive Order is to allow more flexibility in using resources and deploying them around the state where they are most appropriate. By signing the Executive Order, Governor Parson invoked the Missouri State Emergency Operations Plan. Executive Order 20-02 enables Governor Parson to waive certain state laws and regulations where necessary and direct state agencies to report any unfair market practices. Declaring the state of emergency also provides access up to a combined total of about $7 million in state funds beyond the federal funds Missouri expects to receive.
See it here: https://www.sos.mo.gov/library/reference/orders/2020/eo2
Also this week, the IRS announced they are extending the filing and tax payment deadline to July 15, 2020, in an effort to provide some relief to individuals and businesses in response to the coronavirus outbreak. The State of Missouri is extending the payment deadline to July 15, 2020, but will keep the filing deadline of April 15, 2020.
There will be no weekly report from Lathrop GPM Consulting next week, due to the General Assembly’s spring break.
Our staff truly hopes this state of emergency passes as quickly as possible and does not harm you, your family or your associates.
House Bill 2476 (Walsh, R-Ashland) requires all public employee retirement systems and quasi-governmental entities to report such system’s or entity’s employees’ salaries and any incentive pay to the Missouri government accountability portal in the same manner as all state departments and agencies report. Earlier, Rep. Walsh had confirmed the Public School Retirement System’s refusal to reveal salaries of its employees. She said the bill is “an effort of providing transparency.” HB 2476 was voted “Do Pass” on March 18, by the House Downsizing State Government Committee on a vote of 6-2.
House Bill 2725 (Rep. Mary Elizabeth Coleman, R-Arnold) originally proposed numerous changes to the state’s Sunshine Law, Chapter 610 RSMo., however during a House committee hearing on March 16, the bill was substituted for legislation that would affect public access to governmental meetings during an outbreak of contagious illness resulting in the Governor or General Assembly declaring a state of emergency.
HB 2725 was heard by the House Judiciary Committee. In presenting the substitute bill, Rep. Coleman said she had heard from many persons and organizations about the original bill. The substitute, she said, gets rid of the most controversial issues.
“It’s purpose now is to not limit public access to meetings,” she said. If it is reasonably possible, public governmental bodies are to “live stream” meetings on the internet. And, an amended version of the substitute allows the public after such a meeting to submit written testimony to the public governmental body which shall be made a part of any official record of the meeting and made accessible to the public within 48 hours after the meeting.
Members of the news media will be allowed to attend any meeting closed under the provisions. The bill contains an emergency clause and would become effective upon passage by the General Assembly and the Governor’s signing.
Here is the proposed exemption to the Sunshine Law that was approved by the committee:
“(25) Public access to meetings of public governmental bodies may be restricted in the event of an outbreak of contagious illness resulting in the governor or general assembly declaring a state of emergency under the provisions of section 44.100. Meetings restricted under the provisions of this subdivision shall be live streamed online and accessible to the public if reasonably possible. If not, such meetings shall be video and audio recorded and made accessible to the public online within 24 hours after such meeting. Members of the public shall be authorized to submit written testimony to the public governmental body, which shall be presented at such meeting, made a part of any official record, and made accessible to the public online within 48 hours after such meeting. Bona fide credentialed members of the press shall be allowed to attend any meeting closed under this subdivision.”
The substitute bill also allows information submitted via “hotlines” reporting abuse or wrongdoing to be confidential. (Current law allows such confidentiality applied to “municipal” hotlines.) Also, an individual’s mental or physical health records are closed records under the legislation.
No testimony was presented in favor of HB 2725 nor in opposition to the bill. Information only testimony was presented by Jean Maneke, counsel to the Missouri Press Association; Dave Roland, director of litigation for the Freedom Center of Missouri; and Heath Clarkston, representing the Missouri Broadcasters Association.
Much discussion by committee members was focused on who are “bona fide credentialed members of the press.” An amendment by Rep. Phil Christofanelli (R-St. Peters) was offered to eliminate the word “credentialed” in the bill. Rep. Coleman said she was attempting to bring parity by using identical language that is contained in Chapt. 610.205.6, RSMo, that relates to news reporters who can view crime scene photographs. Rep. Gina Mitten (D-St. Louis) said “it’s important that the press be present” at meetings of public governmental bodies. The amendment to remove the word “credentialed” failed on a vote of 5-9.
Another amendment that failed would have limited the public governmental body to conduct “essential business” during such meetings held during states of emergency. That vote was 5-9.
The final vote on the House Committee Substitute for HB 2725, as amended, was 12-2, “Do Pass.”
Later that same day, the bill was voted “Do Pass” by the House Rules – Administrative Oversight Committee by a vote of 5-0.
Rarely in the state legislature is a bill heard by a committee, voted out by that committee, and voted out by a Rules Committee on the same day – a signal the bill is being fast-tracked.
HCS HB 2725 remained on the perfection calendar of the House of Representatives on March 18, when House members adjourned for spring break.
This report is compiled for Missouri Press Association members by Lathrop Gage Consulting.