Missouri lawmakers are headed back to the state capitol Monday to pass a state budget by May 8.
The coronavirus has left the 2020 legislative session in limbo, and there’s still serious concerns about spreading the virus. But House Speaker Elijah Haahr said it’s imperative to get a budget complete.
“Our constitution doesn’t allow us to do anything but to pass it by May 8,” said Haahr.
The financial future of the state is largely unknown, and Gov. Mike Parson has yet to deliver his updated budget recommendations. He has said this will be a much different budget year, and his recommendations may be a work in progress with legislators once they’re back.
“I think one of the things we gotta realize is we’re not for sure what the federal stimulus part of that is going to be, so I think that’s the big unknown out there,” Parson said at a press briefing last week. “Are they going to be in to help with part of the tax revenue lost for the states and the cities and the counties? We just don’t know that yet.”
On Monday, Parson restricted an additional $47 million in planned spending, in addition to the $180 million in cuts he announced earlier this month.
“These are not easy decisions, and they are not made lightly,” Parson said of the move to cut budgets for nine state agencies, the Office of the Attorney General and the General Assembly. “But this is the right thing to do to make sure our budget is balanced and we are financially prepared to deal with the impact of COVID-19 moving forward.”
These cuts will be applied to the planned spending for the fiscal year 2020 budget, but Parson said the state needs to be prepared for the loss in revenue due to the economic effects of the coronavirus for next year’s budget as well.
Since the federal government has not given many guidelines or rules for how the stimulus money can be spent, Haahr said it’s likely lawmakers will be back for a special session later in May or June.
“We think it’s possible, and maybe even probable, that we’ll have to come back after May 8 for special session to tweak and supplement how that budget money is allocated and spent.”
Earlier this month, Parson signaled he wasn’t sure it would be possible to get the budget done by the May 8 deadline. But leadership in both chambers says they have worked out a strict schedule to make sure it gets done in time. Haahr did say it will come down to the wire, however, with votes being taken on the last day possible as of now.
Even with the deadline laid out by the state constitution, there’s no clear repercussions if it is missed. Haahr said the governor would call a special session, which is likely to happen regardless, but there is some uncertainty.
“It is sort of unclear if you do not pass at least one of the budget bills by May 8 if you can even do a special session,” Haahr said. “Because of that, we feel like it is inherent and required for us to get these budget bills up and to the governor by May 8.”
The last time legislators were in Jefferson City was earlier this month when they passed a $6 billion supplemental budget to help fight the coronavirus statewide. Face masks were required, temperatures were taken before legislators entered the building and House members were called to the floor in groups of four to take a vote.
Haahr said there will continue to be safety precautions, but not to that previous extent. Temperatures will still be taken, masks will be recommended, and lawmakers are asked to keep staff to a minimum and to work from their offices when possible.
Senate Minority Leader John Rizzo, D-Kansas City, said this is not enough for the 163-member chamber.
“Already, it’s been learned that the House of Representatives will be taking little to no precautions,” Rizzo said in a statement. “This makes it even more imperative that the Senate takes action to safeguard the public health.”
Rizzo said he is also concerned about the citizens of Jefferson City.
“It would not surprise me to see a spike in infections in Jefferson City shortly after we’re there or a few weeks after we leave, because you’re bringing people from all across the state,” said Rizzo.
Outside of the budget, Democrats are insisting lawmakers should be focusing their energy on coronavirus-related legislation and not creating “unneeded health risks” by taking up proposals unrelated to the pandemic.
Rizzo cited a bill on insurance company payments to personal injury victims that’s scheduled for a committee hearing on Tuesday.
“This legislation and the many others that are scheduled for committee hearings next week have nothing to do with our current public health crisis.”
Haahr said “it’s hard to say exactly which bills are so important” that they would be considered. But he did mention there may be a possibility of passing a statewide prescription drug monitoring program since only one vote is required.
“[State Rep.] Holly Rehder has been working on that for eight years,” said Haahr. “We got that through the Senate finally this year, and it’s now back in the House and requires one more vote to truly agree and send it to the governor.”
Rehder, R-Sikeston, has signaled she will agree to changes that were made to the bill in the Senate before lawmakers left due to the coronavirus. Haahr said it’s hard to argue the measure is related to COVID-19, but he doesn’t think “there’s any way we won’t take that up,” since it has taken years of work to get the measure this far.
Legislation to put a measure on the ballot to deal with the state’s redistricting system and absentee voting in instances of emergency are also ideas that could also be considered once lawmakers return.