“That government is best which governs least” ̶ Henry David Thoreau.
It’s likely that Henry David Thoreau did not originate the view that man was best served by a minimally intrusive government. His praise for the government which governs least probably echoes previous writings, but the notion is dear to many Americans. Those who hold this opinion can take some comfort in this year’s General Assembly. Compared to many past sessions, we may have governed the least of any Missouri Legislature in recent memory.
All told, the Legislature passed just 51 bills and resolutions in 2020, including 18 appropriations bills that authorize state spending. The Legislature’s relatively low output wasn’t necessarily by design or intention. We simply ran out of time. The Second Regular Session of the 100th General Assembly was interrupted by the coronavirus pandemic, and lawmakers stayed away from the Capitol for more than a month. When the Legislature finally reconvened, there was only time to craft the 2021 budget and pass a few bills.
The budget the Legislature approved was the largest in Missouri history. A $30 billion spending plan first proposed when the Legislature convened in January eventually ballooned to more than $35 billion. The increased spending was nearly all related to the coronavirus pandemic, with the money for new and expanded programs anticipated from the federal government. The appropriations bills passed at the end of the 2020 session present a balanced budget, but every legislator understood that the numbers were uncertain. No one knows how quickly our economy will recover or what demands will be placed on government services. Already, the governor has announced withholds to the current year’s budget. It’s reasonable to assume that our projections for 2021 may change, as well.
The 2020 legislative session could well be remembered for what didn’t pass in the final weeks. There was no progress made to increase school choice in Missouri. Legislation to combat illegal gaming machines at truck stops and elsewhere never made it to the Senate floor. Thankfully, in my opinion, proposals to allow sports wagering and video gaming also went nowhere. The various gun control bills introduced at the start of the year gained no traction. A plan to tax online sales fizzled. A statewide prescription drug monitoring program looked like it might finally cross the finish line, but it, too, came up short in the final hours.
The Legislature did manage to pass a few significant measures. Victims of sexual assault will have greater access to forensic examinations thanks to provisions of Senate Bill 569, which also includes a “Sexual Assault Survivors’ Bill of Rights.” Senate Bill 600 increases penalties for certain violent offenses and creates a criminal offense for vehicle hijacking. Senate Bill 676 exempts coronavirus stimulus payments from state taxation, while also providing increased protection from property tax assessment hikes. The Legislature approved several important tort reform measures, most notably limits on punitive damages, as part of Senate Bill 591. Voters who are concerned about contracting COVID-19 at the polling place can vote by mail this year under provisions of Senate Bill 631. One of the measures they’ll vote on is Senate Joint Resolution 38, which asks voters to reconsider the so-called “Clean Missouri” redistricting plan.
While the General Assembly didn’t pass many bills in total, many will agree that we bundled far too many provisions into the few bills we sent to the governor. There seemed to be a concerted effort during the final week for legislators to tack their favored proposals onto bills that were moving forward. The result was a number of omnibus bills, some containing dozens of separate provisions all related to the same general topic. Several of these measures – including two largely overlapping bills that relate to veterans – contain numerous provisions that I’m confident could have passed separately if lawmakers had more time. Still, it would have been better to have considered these proposals individually.
Such is the nature of the legislative process. It can be messy at times. Another sage observer of government – some say Mark Twain, others credit a New York judge – once remarked “no man’s life, liberty or property are safe while the Legislature is in session.” For those who hold that uncharitable view, the good news is that the General Assembly has recessed for the year.
Speaking of property, I’d like to pass along a reminder: The state treasurer currently manages over $1 billion in unclaimed assets in more than 5 million owner accounts. Often these are remnants of long-closed bank accounts, unredeemed deposits and the like. Other times, they are items left behind in bank safety deposit boxes. To find out whether the treasurer is holding unclaimed property for you, visit the state treasurer’s website and enter your name in the search tool at www.treasurer.mo.gov/unclaimedproperty.
Thank you for reading this legislative report. You can contact my office at (573) 751-2108 if you have any questions. Thank you and we welcome your prayers for the proper application of state government.