In a legislative session upended by the coronavirus, Missouri lawmakers rallied to do what they typically do: pass some important legislation, some lame legislation and whiff on a number of opportunities to make our state better.
Lawmakers sent less than 50 bills to Gov. Mike Parson – about half of what they sent the previous two years – after missing weeks of work when the General Assembly shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Give lawmakers credit for passing a measure that would allow people who are at risk or afraid of catching the coronavirus the ability to use a mail-in ballot in the August and November statewide elections.
It took a pandemic to make Missouri’s overly strict absentee ballot system more accessible, and it’s only for this year, but it’s overdue progress toward making it easier to vote in this state. Let’s hope it is a spark for change.
Legislators also deserve praise for passing a bill making COVID-19 testing, if recommended by a doctor, free. They also passed a measure banning vaping in and around public K-12 schools, which is good public health policy.
Another important bill that passed this session allows easier access to rape kits for sexual assault survivors. The sponsor, Democratic Sen. Jill Schupp, said that this measure will no longer force victims of sexual assault to drive long distances looking for a hospital that can offer them a rape kit.
Legislators also deserve credit for approving a needed law that would create the crime of vehicle hijacking. According to the Associated Press, the legislation would also expand the number of crimes that are considered dangerous felonies, ban probation for some crimes, and broaden what’s considered a criminal gang along with increased penalties for taking part in gang activities.
But lawmakers also passed some odious measures this session, including a plan to gut key provisions of Clean Missouri, which voters passed with 62 percent of the vote in 2018.
The new ballot initiative, which is being billed as “ ‘Clean(er)’ Missouri,” would roll back a majority of the changes made by Clean Missouri, including eliminating the role of a nonpartisan state demographer. The person chosen to fill the position would redraw the state’s district lines, which has caused concerns that the GOP could lose seats.
Republicans have maintained that voters didn’t understand the redistricting language of the amendment on the ballot.
But even some Republicans questioned the wisdom of trying to overturn the provisions of Clean Missouri, which passed resoundingly. Rep. Rocky Miller, R-Lake Ozark, told the Springfield News Leader he thought the plan would “go down in flames if it makes it to the ballot.
“This will be as bad as right-to-work,” he added, referring to the anti-union law struck down by voters despite GOP lawmakers’ overwhelming support for the idea.
There were other lame bills that legislators wasted precious time passing, including a law allowing qualified motorcycle riders over age 25 to ride without a helmet.
But it was the missed opportunities that will mark this session as a “head scratcher” for the ages.
Lawmakers, at a time when revenues are plummeting due to the pandemic, failed to pass legislation that would bring in millions of dollars for the state and local governments by collecting taxes on online sales.
Of the 45 states that collect sales taxes, Missouri is one of only two states that hasn’t enacted a “Wayfair” law, named after Wayfair v. South Dakota, the 2018 Supreme Court case that opened the door for states to collect taxes on online sales, according to the Columbia Missourian.
The Missouri Budget Project, a nonpartisan budget policy group, estimated last year that collecting the tax could bring in an additional $95 million to the state and $85 million for local governments.
Gov. Mike Parson made the case for the legislation in his State of the State speech in January, proposing that the revenue brought in by the tax be directed to a new “cash operating expense fund” — essentially an emergency savings fund for the state.
If there was ever a time to level the playing field between online retailers and local stores it is now as the pandemic is expected to wreak havoc with state and municipal budgets.
But lawmakers were unable to get a bill across the finish line in a disappointing end to a forgetful session.