The future of Missouri’s 2020 legislative session is unclear as increasing concerns about COVID-19 spread across the country, but the House of Representatives will meet next week to pass its version of the state budget.
Speaker of the House Rep. Elijah Haahr, R-Springfield, announced Thursday that the House will be in session next week with the intention of moving the budget forward.
He explained the House Budget Committee would convene Sunday for a technical session. The plan is to make changes to the budget throughout the week, bring the full House together to debate it Wednesday and pass it Thursday, Haahr said.
In contrast, the Senate will not be in session next week because of concerns about coronavirus, according to an announcement made via Twitter on Wednesday evening by a tweet from Floor Majority Leader Sen. Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia.
Neither the House nor the Senate will be in session during the previously scheduled 10-day spring break, which is set to begin for both chambers March 19.
Haahr emphasized that the House's biggest priority is passing the budget but what follows the budget is less clear
"After that, when it comes to policy items, we will reevaluate that over spring break and sort of make a plan going forward," Haahr said. "We are fully aware that there will be disruptions. This will not be a normal session, and as such we'll have to prioritize."
The legislature has already taken some steps to minimize the risk of exposure to coronavirus for lawmakers and staff, including issuing a bipartisan statement Tuesday from House and Senate leaders that discourages all non-essential guests from visiting the Capitol.
Non-essential guests include anyone who is not directly participating in the lawmaking process, such as school groups, advocacy groups and other members of the public, according to the statement.
Haahr confirmed he has been in contact with public health officials for guidance on how to proceed with the legislative session. He confirmed those officials said the legislature was OK to continue working despite the fact that legislating entails large group meetings.
"Obviously our goal is to minimize the number of people that are in the Capitol and minimize the exposure of the members and staff to any of those risk factors," Haahr said. "But as long as we believe that we can move forward, we have duties we need to fulfill and the state government must continue to work"
House Minority Floor Leader Rep. Crystal Quade, D-Springfield, said Missouri was wildly behind other states in its efforts to proactively address the pandemic, and she brought forward a list of 14 steps the state should take to address concerns about COVID-19.
First, Quade said Gov. Mike Parson should declare a state of emergency, which would make additional funds available to address the spread of COVID-19.
She said the state should provide more funding to county health departments, to nonprofit organizations that will provide food for children if schools are closed and to medical providers to reimburse them for treating uninsured patients for the next month.
Quade said the state should implement an emergency measure that would require insurance companies to cover COVID-19 testing, in an effort to ensure people feel comfortable getting tested.
She emphasized the need to authorize mandatory paid sick leave for companies with 50 or more employees that would be in place for the next six months.
"If there's ever been a time in my life for us to have a discussion about paid sick leave, now is it,” Quade said. "We have a lot of folks who need to pay their bills but will continue to go to work with symptoms and spread this."
Quade also pointed out the need to address the possibility of the spread of COVID-19 in prisons, where confined spaces could facilitate rapid spread of the virus.
"I want to have a serious discussion about furloughing our nonviolent prisoners," she said.
Thursday afternoon, the Missouri Department of Corrections suspended visits with prisoners for 30 days, with the exception of attorney visits.
It is not clear if any of the steps Quade requested will be taken. Haahr disputed Quade's claim that Missouri is underprepared in comparison to other states.
"I think we're actually far ahead of where a lot of other states are," Haahr said.