The Missouri Senate will meet this week to consider a $1.3 billion COVID-19 spending bill, but the timeline for debating pandemic liability protections is not clear.
The Senate Appropriations Committee is scheduled to meet Tuesday, and the full Senate will spend Wednesday debating the spending bill as the special session called by Gov. Mike Parson resumes after a delay caused by COVID-19 cases among Senate Republicans members and staff.
Those cases became part of the surge in Missouri coronavirus infections that has added almost 100,000 new infections here in November. The contagion is spreading far more quickly than at any time previously in the pandemic.
It took from the time the first case was found in the state in early March until Sept. 12 for the state to record its first 100,000 cases.
While some foes of the liability protection bill have argued it should wait until the next regular session begins in January, “nothing is off the table,” Senate Majority Leader Caleb Rowden said.
“Don’t know the schedule beyond next week,” Rowden, R-Columbia, wrote in a text message.
The special session began Nov. 5. The Missouri House passed on Nov. 10 the spending bill that would provide $752 million in new spending authority for federal CARES Act funding, $18.7 million for local agencies working to prevent homelessness and $96 million in child support payments.
The CARES Act funds, from a bill approved in March by the U.S. Congress, must be spent by Dec. 30. The appropriation includes enough authority to spend money currently held by the state treasury, funds expected from federal matches to state emergency spending and money expected from counties unable to use their funds by the deadline.
The child support appropriation is needed to deliver money captured by the state from CARES Act stimulus funds, unemployment supplements and tax refunds to custodial parents.
The regular appropriation did not anticipate the extra funds. In a House Budget Committee hearing, Budget Director Dan Haug said the state would not be able to distribute child support funds after the end of the month without the supplemental spending bill.
Senate Minority Leader John Rizzo, D-Independence, said he agreed with the plan to focus the coming week on the appropriations.
“I am hoping it won’t take that long to get it done, simply for the fact that we need to get this relief out to Missourians,” Rizzo said.
The debate over COVID-19 liability protections could be protracted and the difficulties presented by holiday and legislative transition schedules will make passage difficult during the special session, Rizzo said.
The sponsor of the liability protection measure, Sen. Ed Emery, R-Lamar, is one of the legislators who will not return in January because of term limits. The transition time is when members change offices, new members are oriented and staff change jobs, Rizzo noted.
“You couple those changes with the fact that we are not going to do it [this] week, and you really get down to doing it possibly the following week,” Rizzo said. “And after that it gets really, really dicey.”
The schedule for a hearing on the liability protection bill, Emery said in an interview, will be determined by when a quorum of the seven-member Government Reform Committee is available. Emery chairs the committee.
He would like to have the hearing in the coming week, Emery said.
“It is not the easiest thing in the world to find out when everybody can be there,” he said.
Under his bill, healthcare providers and businesses would be protected not just from litigation stemming from the pandemic — but also under declared states of emergency in the future.
The bill is being revised, Emery said, and one area where it could be altered is in the definitions of what is covered and for how long. A national bill sponsored by U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, is being reviewed, he said.
“We are taking a look at it to see what could help us clarify and specify the liability provisions we want in Missouri,” Emery said.
The Missouri House is not scheduled to meet as it waits for Senate action on the appropriation bill and the liability protection legislation. If the Senate changes anything in the spending bill, the House will have to convene to ratify the changes or seek a compromise.
A House version of the liability protection bill has been introduced but has not been assigned to a committee.
The Capitol Building is open to the public, but anyone wishing to watch committee hearings or floor debate in person will have to go through a health screening on their way in. There is no mask requirement for visitors to the Capitol.
The Senate Appropriations Committee hearing will be held in the Senate chamber, where there is no permanent placement of video cameras, unlike the House. In his text message, Rowden said live audio but no video feed would be available online of the committee meeting and floor debate.
Emery said that he would like “to have a COVID-era open hearing” with video but that he would not take remote testimony on the liability bill.
This article is published by permission of the Missouri Independent.