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COVID-19 takes priority for state lawmakers

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March 23 marks the first day of the Missouri General Assembly’s legislative spring break, and lawmakers say the likelihood of a productive session is growing slim with the threat of the coronavirus.

The Missouri House of Representatives and Senate have moved several bills through committee and to the opposing legislative chamber, with one bill already approved from both bodies. But that’s typical by the session’s midpoint, said Speaker Elijah Haahr. Some of the bills that have sped through the process cover the Wayfair tax, a transient guest tax in Springfield and call spoofing.

What’s not typical is doing the work amid a pandemic – a reality that’s made legislators focus on the bare minimum.

“Everything has fallen to second status because of COVID-19,” Haahr said. “That issue is No. 1 in every way, shape or form.”

Once the legislature returns from break, whether that’s at the Capitol or through a telecommuting alternative, the clock is ticking to pass what it’s constitutionally required to do: a balanced budget. The session ends May 15.

COVID-19 response
As the coronavirus continues to spread throughout the United States, Haahr said the House has prepared a bill to limit the Capitol building to only members of the legislature and the media.

If House Bill 2725 passes, people who wish to offer testimony will be able to submit statements through email and continue to watch chamber and committee meetings through a livestream and audio recording, which is already available on the House and Senate websites. It also would allow other local governments to follow suit. The bill includes an emergency clause so that it goes into effect once it’s received two-thirds majority in the House and Senate.

“All of the things that are included in the bill are things we already do,” Haahr said. “This would also flow down to the county level, so if the city council wanted to have a meeting but were worried about this issue, these are the requirements.”

The Missouri Senate took the week of March 16 off to allow for senators to practice social distancing. The House of Representatives continued operations as usual prior to the spring break.

Haahr said his goals before break were to pass HB 2725, the House version of the budget, the supplemental budget with coronavirus-related funding and the Federal Reimbursement Allowance funding – which is the third highest source of state revenue.

On March 18, the House passed $40 million in funding for COVID-19 relief for the current fiscal year – double the amount Haahr had anticipated. The funding comprises $33 million from the federal government and $7 million in funding that became available when Gov. Mike Parson declared a statewide emergency March 13.

After those items are met, Haahr said the House will regroup to consider its next priorities, not knowing what the next month or so holds as COVID-19 spreads across the U.S.

“We’re having to consider … if this session is significantly disrupted, is there a chance we need to have a summer session? If we basically lose a month, or the whole month of April, there’s policy ramifications,” he said.

Senate President Pro Tem Dave Schatz did not return requests for comment on the Senate’s next move.

Economic development
Sen. Lincoln Hough and Rep. Craig Fishel, both of Springfield, are championing bills that would allow Springfield City Council to ask voters to approve an increase in the transient guest tax to 7.5% from 5%. If approved, the earnings from the tax would be used for capital investments to further support and increase tourism in the area, Hough said. It could potentially include funding for a convention center, Hough added, which has been a longstanding goal among Springfield leaders for decades.

Fishel’s proposal in the House has gained traction, as it was sent to the Senate in early February. Fishel could not be reached for comment.

“Theoretically, we could take that house bill and pass it in the Senate, and if we don’t amend it, it goes to the governor’s desk,” Hough said. “The wild card is what’s going to happen when we do go back. The virus has gotten everything.”

Hough also is backing a bill that’s aimed at attracting manufacturing jobs. It has been read in the House. If passed, the proposal would allow cities and counties to create special zones to attract a manufacturing workforce.

“This is hard dollars that would be remitted to the state for new job creation,” Hough said, adding that 25% of state tax withholdings would be retained by that zone for infrastructure improvements, such as intersection work.

Other initiatives
Sen. Eric Burlison, R-Battlefield, is backing a bill to limit call spoofing. It was passed by the Senate in early March.

Senate Bill 664 adds call spoofing to the list of prohibited solicitations under the attorney general’s no-call list. The bill gives the attorney general the ability to prosecute those calling individuals on the no-call list, Burlison said.

“I wish we could totally stop it, but it will put a chilling effect on anyone attempting it in Missouri,” Burlison said.

Several legislators also have proposed bills to allow Missouri to catch up to the rest of the country by collecting sales taxes on out-of-state retailers that conduct e-commerce in the Show-Me State, aka the Wayfair tax. It would allow states to impose sales taxes, 4.25% in Missouri, on online businesses with in-state gross sales exceeding $100,000.

A proposal by Sen. Andrew Koenig, R-St. Louis County, was recently tabbed by lawmakers as the one that may make it to the governor’s desk, according to past Springfield Business Journal reporting. Last week, lawmakers tacked on several tax-related initiatives in a step known as “Christmas treeing” the bill. The additions include tax contributions to rape crisis centers and measures to limit taxing on female personal hygiene products and diapers.

“People are going to have a hard time voting for that, and it will ultimately get killed by its own weight,” Burlison said.

State lawmakers had expressed a wide range of priorities at the beginning of the session, including workforce development measures, Medicaid expansion, charter school restrictions and tort reform.

“We’ll be lucky if we get the budget bill passed this session, which we’re constitutionally required to do,” Burlison said.

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