Lawmakers looking to prevent COVID-19 spread at Capitol amid budget talks


JEFFERSON CITY — Lawmakers will return to the Capitol next week with new measures in place to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 among themselves and essential employees who work in the building.

The precautions include implementing checkpoints at entrances, livestreaming legislative work and cordoning off lawmakers from the general public.

Senate Majority Leader Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, said lawmakers have been making plans that will allow them to move forward with their top legislative priorities for next week: amending and passing the supplemental budget that will provide additional funding through the end of June and passing the federal reimbursement allowance bill, or FRA, which will allow the state to draw federal money for Medicaid.

Tentatively, lawmakers will reconvene for two days next week, Rowden said. On Tuesday, he said there will be a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing, then, on Wednesday, the Senate would vote on the supplemental budget and FRA bill.

Reconvening for two days will be a ”test balloon” to see how well the new safety measures work, Rowden said.

Rowden, Elijah Haahr, R-Springfield, and Rep. Kip Kendrick, D-Columbia, said House and Senate leaders have been talking to MU Health Care as well as Boone and Cole County public health experts. Based on their suggestions, the Capitol will implement an entry checkpoint policy. Haahr said there will probably only be one entrance open.

“We will have nurses there that are taking temperatures of people as they go in, asking questions about traveling, if they’ve been running a fever, things like that,” Haahr said. “What we recommend to everybody is that you don’t come into the building if there’s a way that you don’t need to.”

The safety measures will continue into the building as well.

To prevent members of the public, including lobbyists, from interacting with the lawmakers, ropes will be put in place throughout the Capitol, Rowden said. Committee rooms will be set up differently next week, meaning there will be far fewer chairs in an effort to discourage members of the public from attending hearings.

Much of the work done in the Capitol will also be livestreamed, including Senate committee hearings and business conducted on the Senate floor, which has not been done before.

“Those are other measures that we’re taking to help folks feel like they can be a part of the process without actually being in the building,” Rowden said.

Rowden said lawmakers will essentially be quarantined in their offices rather than moving between offices as usual. Most members will not have their staff with them, according to Haahr.

Rowden also said the Senate plans to do slower roll calls, which will allow senators to listen to the debate in their offices and come to the floor to vote only after their name is called.

House majority and minority leaders have discussed how to ensure that there are as few representatives on the House floor as possible while the supplemental budget is debated.

“My expectation is it will be less than ten, maybe even less than five (members),” Haahr said. “Obviously, procedurally there has to be somebody presiding, the majority floor leader, the budget chair and the minority leader.”

Haahr added the House is exploring representatives’ voting options, including a method similar to the one senators will use. He said this would be somewhat cumbersome for the 163-member body, but it would guarantee the fewest number of lawmakers on the floor at once.

Kendrick agreed: “We need to make sure that we don’t delay the supplemental bill or any other legislation that’s needed at this time.”

The idea is to see if the measures can be safely and successfully extended throughout the rest of the session.

But even if the precautions work well, Rowden said there must be a discussion on whether to continue the regular legislative session. Opening the session back up would put more legislation on the table and could potentially mean more people wanting to be in the building.

Kendrick said the House and Senate might only pass the supplemental budget, the FRA bill and the fiscal year 2021 budget in the regular session, though they could reconvene for a special session later in the year.

“In coming months, it’s very possible that there’s a concurrent special session called for the summer to work through some of the legislation that’s been put on hold as a result of the coronavirus,” Kendrick said.

Rowden said there’s a possibility lawmakers might pass the supplemental budget and the FRA, only to go on another break. But he said a special session unrelated to the state’s COVID-19 response was unlikely because the Missouri legislature is part time and many lawmakers have other responsibilities in the summers.

Missouri’s 2021 budget

Even if lawmakers’ efforts next week are successful, they will still have to finalize and pass a budget for fiscal year 2021. Kendrick, the House Budget Committee’s ranking minority member, said the bills passed out of the Budget Committee weeks ago were based on estimates of 1.6 percent economic growth.

Kendrick said he no longer thinks that growth is possible at all.

“Hopefully this is just a short-term economic downturn, but even just a short-term downturn is going to be very significant,” he said. “There are going to be many job losses, there’s going to be a lot of reduction in income tax collection as well as sales tax collection.”

Rowden seemed less certain about the severity of the economic toll of COVID-19. He said it was possible the 2021 budget would take a hit, but also pointed out that there is a large amount of federal money being sent to states.

“The amount of federal money that’s coming down, if you’ve been following what’s happening in D.C., is substantive,” Rowden said. “I think it’s pretty safe to say that Missouri’s share of that at a minimum is probably $3 billion, which relative to the size of our state budget is significant.”

Kendrick said it’s difficult to forecast what a revised fiscal year 2021 revenue estimate will be. It will take “several weeks yet” for lawmakers to wrap their heads around a new adequate revenue projection and get back to the 2021 budget given the realities of COVID-19, he said. But he is sure that the 2021 budget the committee passed before the economic fallout of COVID-19 will look different from the one that the governor eventually signs.

Rowden said he thinks there could be a cash-flow issue initially and that a slower approach to the 2021 budget might be wise.

“We’re going to know more about this in six months than we do now, as far as the long-term impact, the structural economic impact,” he said.

Haahr said the legislature’s deadline for next year’s budget — which takes effect July 1 — is May 8. But he said there has been talk of calling a special session to complete it if the work cannot be done by then.