|On the Floor
After a week off due to the severe winter weather across the state, the Missouri Senate was back in action this week, often working until the early morning hours on legislation.
The first bill that prompted hours of debate was Senate Bill 26. Among its numerous provisions, SB 26 creates the offense of unlawful traffic interference if someone impedes or blocks traffic on a public street, highway or interstate highway. I am concerned this provision will work to restrict and silence protesters seeking to make their voices heard and implement change. Senate Bill 26 also places restrictions on local communities from deciding what is best for cities and municipalities by allowing them to be sued if they reduce policing budgets beyond a certain percent compared to other departments. Not only does this open up the possibility of creating hurdles for cities looking to trim budgets during financially hard times, but it further erodes the idea of local control.
While I oppose the previously mentioned portions of the bill, I was able to include an amendment to SB 26 creating a fund to help our law enforcement officers access the resources they need to deal with stress and trauma they may experience while on the job. Just as an officer’s physical health and safety matters, so too does their mental health. Hopefully, with this fund’s assistance, officers will be able to better deal with stress and be the best officers they can be. Ultimately, SB 26 was finalized in the early morning on Feb. 23 and passed out of the chamber later in the week. It now heads to the Missouri House of Representatives for further consideration.
Another bill discussed at length this week was Senate Bill 55, an education reform bill. Much of the bill centers on providing more opportunities for Missouri students outside of the traditional public school system. For instance, the bill allows charter schools to expand to any school district located within a charter county as well as in any municipality with a population greater than 30,000. Currently, charter schools only operate in the St. Louis and Kansas City areas. The bill also creates a tax credit program to fund scholarships to send students to schools outside of their district’s public school. As debate continued late into the evening on Feb. 23, an amendment was added to the bill requiring schools to receive parental permission before teaching about human sexuality and sexually transmitted diseases. Shortly after the amendment was adopted around 1 a.m., the bill was laid over.
Bills and Committees
Senator May’s Legislation:
On Feb. 23, I presented Senate Bill 318, which modifies provisions relating to scrap metal, to the Senate’s General Laws Committee. I hope this legislation will help crack down on the theft and sale of illegally obtained scrap metal, such as copper.
The Rules Committee considered legislation relating to calling a national constitutional convention to amend the U.S. Constitution. Senate Bill 231 creates procedures for Missouri to appoint commissioners to a constitutional convention in the event one is called. Meanwhile, Senate Concurrent Resolution 1 specifically calls for a convention to be held in order to propose an amendment allowing states to repeal certain federal actions. Senate Concurrent Resolution 4 likewise calls a convention to propose an amendment to impose fiscal restraints and other limits on the federal government, as well as establish term limits for federal officials and members of Congress.
The Senate’s Commerce, Consumer Protection, Energy and the Environment Committee heard two bills this week. Senate Bill 336 requires internet providers to authenticate access to obscene websites before allowing access to the site. The bill’s supporters say it aims to prevent children from viewing certain adult content online, while others raised privacy concerns and questioned the legislation’s feasibility. The other bill heard, Senate Bill 202, seeks to open up financing options for utilities to transition to newer technology.
The committee continues to hear from state departments on their funding requests for the upcoming fiscal year. This week, the committee heard from the Department of Mental Health, the Department of Labor and Industrial Relations and the Department of Health and Senior Services. The committee also heard from the offices of statewide elected officials including the governor, the lieutenant governor, the attorney general, secretary of state, state auditor and state treasurer, as well as the General Assembly.
House Again Tries to Enact Photo Voter ID Requirement:
On Feb. 24, the Missouri House of Representatives voted 109-46 in favor of legislation to require government-issued photo identification in order to cast a ballot. The legislation, House Bill 334, now advances to the Senate. The General Assembly previously passed similar legislation into law, but it was struck down by the Missouri Supreme Court.
House Passes Bill Establishing the Missouri Empowerment Scholarship Accounts Program:
On Feb. 25, the House of Representatives voted 82-71-1 to pass out of the chamber legislation that would establish tax breaks to provide vouchers for students to attend private K-12 schools. House Bill 349 would allow people to donate to organizations that would provide scholarships on a first-come, first-serve basis to qualifying students to help pay for private school tuition. Donors would receive a tax credit for the full amount of their contribution, meaning the donor is out no money while the amount of tax revenue the state collects for public education and other services is reduced. Although the bill originally would have applied statewide, it was amended to only allow students in more populous cities and counties. The bill now heads to the Senate.
Senate Passes COVID Liability Bill:
The Senate passed Senate Bill 51, which provides certain legal protections for health care workers, businesses, certain manufacturers and others from lawsuits stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic. The bill has been sent to the House for further consideration.
Pressure Increases for Public Defender Funding:
A Cole County judge on Feb. 18 ruled that the state’s practice of letting indigent defendants spend weeks, months or even a year or more in jail while waiting to be assigned a public defender violates their Sixth Amendment right to counsel. I believe the ruling puts renewed pressure on state lawmakers to significantly increase the budget for the overburdened State Public Defender’s Office to allow it to hire more attorneys. The Legislature is still in the early stages of the FY 2022 budget process, but must grant final passage to the various appropriations bills that make up the state operating budget no later than May 7.
As of Feb. 25, 2021, the Missouri COVID-19 Dashboard reports an average of 442 new COVID-19 cases per day over the past week.
As of Feb. 24, the City of St. Louis Health Department has reported a total of 19,789 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the City of St. Louis.