Springfield, MO

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Opinion: COVID-19 may set Missouri government precedents

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The COVID-19 pandemic has caused major changes in our state government.

The biggest change involves the degree to which the legislature is giving the governor enormous powers over the state's budget to pick winners and losers. Lawmakers had little choice.

The economic consequences of COVID-19 – from closed businesses and unemployed Missourians – hit the state so late in the legislative process that the full impact on state tax collections was unclear. In the few weeks after the COVID-19 economic impact began emerging, estimates of budget shortfalls ranged from $300 million to $1 billion.

Creating an entirely new budget with detailed program-by-program spending allotments of more than $30 billion in just a few weeks proved difficult to achieve.

"We don't know how long it will last or bad it will be. We know it's not good, but it's impossible to know where we're at or where we're going," House Budget Committee Chair Cody Smith, R-Jasper County, conceded to the House about the economic situation.

Compounding the problem are questions about federal COVID-19 relief funds allocated to the state. It's a huge amount, potentially several billion dollars. But on the closing days of legislative action on the budget, details about the amount and how the money could be used were still emerging.

Lawmakers chose to appropriate as much as they think the state could receive. But that hands power to the governor to use his legal authority to decide where to restrict spending when the administration concludes there will not be sufficient funds for what the legislature appropriated.

That makes it unclear how much money various programs actually will get.

State Auditor Nicole Galloway has charged Gov. Mike Parson’s administration with refusing to comply with her request to state agencies about how they plan to spend those COVID-19 federal funds.

When the legislature considers a realistic balanced budget, the legislative process gives Missourians and interested parties ample opportunity to voice concerns before final passage. Not so if tentative administration plans are kept secret.

Another major change in the legislative process has been the degree to which lawmakers piled completely unrelated issues onto the parent bills in the closing weeks of the session. I used the term "bloated whales" in an earlier column to describe bills that the legislature bloats up with unrelated issues as the approaching end of a legislative session limits how many bills can get passed.

But this year, creating bloated whales became a legislative frenzy, to a degree I've not seen before.

A perfect example was a relatively simple bill to include fentanyl among the state's illegal drugs. But it grew to include juvenile court certification, banning drones at prisons, witness protection, letting cops hold suspects longer in jail, vehicle hijacking, street gangs, city dog ordinances, physician assistant licensing, feral hogs, liquor sales and public record exemptions – all in one bill.

I understand the drive for bloated bills. The legislature's extended, multiweek recess because of COVID-19 significantly compressed the time lawmakers have to pass bills before adjournment. In the past, those weeks of early spring had been critical in reaching compromises to move measures forward for final passage.

But listening to hours upon hours of debate as bills got bloated, I wondered if simply taking up the individual bills actually might be quicker, even if it required daily sessions into the late evening.

Maybe it will take another Missouri Supreme Court case reaffirming the unanimous 1995 decision that the state constitutional provision that prohibits a bill from containing "more than one subject" really means "one subject."

Obviously, the historic challenges from COVID-19 require unprecedented actions. But I wonder whether these precedents will lay a foundation for the future.

Health officials predict this virus will be with us in 2021 and legislative budget leaders warn the financial problems facing the state government also likely will continue next year.

So, does that mean the governmental shortcuts of this year will continue into next year?

Phill Brooks has been a statehouse reporter since 1970, making him the dean of the Missouri statehouse press corps. He is director of Missouri Digital News and an emeritus faculty member of the Missouri School of Journalism.


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