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Missouri Lawmakers Expected To OK Millions For Coronavirus Fight Next Week

Medical workers collect a sample from a patient at Mercy Health's drive-through novel coronavirus test collection site in Chesterfield on Monday afternoon, March 16, 2020.
File photo |Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Missouri legislators plan to pass a supplemental budget next week, which will give the governor authority to use millions of dollars to help in the fight against the coronavirus, such as funding testing sites like this one in Chesterfield.

As the coronavirus pandemic rages on, Missouri lawmakers say they are planning to return to Jefferson City next week to pass a supplemental budget that includes millions of state and federal dollars to help deal with the outbreak. 

Senators left the Capitol a week before the legislative spring break on March 12. Senate President Pro Tem Dave Schatz, R-Sullivan, said the decision was made from a “cautious perspective” simply because there was nothing pressing to complete. 

House members returned the following week with the intention of finishing up hearings on the estimated $30 billion budget. But they realized it was too much to complete during the outbreak. 

The House did manage to pass a $40 million supplemental budget before leaving town on March 19. The package allocated $33 million in federal relief funds for the pandemic and $7 million in state funds that became available when Gov. Mike Parson declared a state of emergency. 

House Democrats tried to tack on language that would have freed up additional funds and granted more spending authority to help with the economic effects of the virus. But the amendments did not have enough support. House Budget Chairman Cody Smith, R-Carthage, said those ideas would have unbalanced the budget. 

“What we did was create a path where we could provide a little more than $40 million for relief on this effort through the end of June without unbalancing the budget,” Smith said at a press conference on March 19. “If we need to do more than that in the short term, we have the opportunity to come back.”

Senate Majority Leader Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, is planning to call his members back to the Statehouse next week to work on the supplemental budget. He said there will be several changes. 

Senate Majority Leader Caleb Rowden listens to colleagues during the last day of the legislative session in Jefferson City on Friday.
Credit File | Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Senate Majority Leader Caleb Rowden says he'll call his chamber back next week to get to work on the supplemental budget.

“When it came out of the House, it included $40 million for COVID resources,” Rowden said. “When it comes out of the Senate, because of the new stimulus bills that have passed, it’s going to include a lot more.” 

Because of those changes, the plan will go back to the 163-member House for final approval before it can be sent to the governor. Rep. Peter Merideth, D-St. Louis, said he is frustrated that the broader language wasn’t approved back in March.

“I hope that (Republicans) will realize that this time we need to put that money in now, and we can’t simply wait and expect to be able to come back later,” Merideth said. “If we had done that the first time, we wouldn’t have to put all of us at risk by having another public session next week.” 

In a press briefing last week, Parson said the Legislature needs to approve the supplemental budget by April 24. Rowden said three weeks was plenty of time. 

According to a press release from Republican House leadership Thursday, the proposal will be ready to go by Wednesday. The statement reads, in part: “Having passed the supplemental budget three weeks ago, it is imperative that the legislature move without delay to keep Missouri’s government operating during this crisis and provide the needed resources to those on the front lines of this pandemic.” 

Lawmakers are also up against a constitutional deadline to approve the state budget by May 8, one week before the session ends, for the fiscal year that begins July 1. House Speaker Elijah Haahr, R-Springfield, said that will be a top priority. 

“Obviously we will have to come back at some point to do the full budget, but there’s just no way to predict at this point how many legislative days we’ll have this session,” Haahr said.

Missouri Gov. Mike Parson speaks with St. Louis Public Radio in downtown St. Louis on Nov. 14, 2019.
Credit File | Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Gov. Mike Parson has restricted $180 million in state spending to free up funds for the fight against COVID19.

On Wednesday, Parson halted $180 million in proposed spending for this year to help with the economic impact of COVID-19. State Budget Director Dan Haug said it’s likely those financial concerns will last into next year’s budget, too. 

“We are seeing unprecedented drops in revenue from the significant reduction of economic activity from people staying home,” Haug said. “We feel like this is going to impact the budget not only for this year, but for next year.” 

In addition to the budget, lawmakers will also prioritize the Federal Reimbursement Allowance. This is the federal match for Medicaid payments for hospitals.

Parson said they’re still working out logistics on how legislators will abide by his social distancing order that he’s signaled he will extend beyond April 6. The order stipulates gatherings must be kept to 10 or fewer people while remaining six feet apart.

“You know, it’s a big group, so we’re going to try to maintain that distance, and we’re going to figure out a solution, how we get them in the building … maybe we don’t have them in the building at the same time,” Parson said. 

The fate of legislation on state redistricting, sports betting, ending residency requirements for law enforcement and other key issues is unclear. 

Haahr and Rowden have both said approving a statewide prescription drug monitoring program may be possible since it has already gone through lengthy debate in both chambers. The Senate made a few changes to the House’s original bill, but in March, Haahr said the House will approve them and send the measure to the governor. 

There is also the possibility of holding a special legislative session at some point after the Legislature adjourns on May 15.

“As we get further along, I think there are things we need to consider in response to the crisis, and as long as it is legislation directly related to this situation, I think it would be understandable for us to find a way to get those things done,” Merideth said.

Follow Jaclyn on Twitter: @DriscollNPR

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Jaclyn is the Jefferson City statehouse reporter for St. Louis Public Radio.