Missouri governor open to adding COVID liability to legislative special session agenda

Gov. Mike Parson speaks to the media outside of his Missouri Capitol office. (photo courtesy of the Missouri Governor's Office)

JEFFERSON CITY— Missouri Gov. Mike Parson said he would consider adding COVID-19 liability protection to a special session if legislation that can be passed quickly is brought to him.

The General Assembly began the second special session of the year on Wednesday with House introduction of Parson’s $1.3 billion plan for using remaining federal coronavirus relief funds, as well as provide $2 million to pay for the state’s new witness protection program.

As the session prepared to open, House Majority Leader Rob Vescovo, R-Arnold, sent Parson a letter asking him to add liability protections for businesses and health care providers to the agenda. 

Lawmakers are limited during special sessions called by the governor to items listed in his proclamation.

“As we all do our part to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, I know there are simple steps we can take to support our struggling businesses, as well as hospitals and health care workers trying to keep Missourians safe,” Vescovo said.

Vescovo will be House speaker in January, but he wrote to Parson that he doesn’t want to wait for the regular session. While lawmakers begin meeting in the first week of January, organizing a newly elected legislature and holding hearings on bills means the first floor action doesn’t occur until late in the month or early February.

“If we are to give our state the best chance to recover from this ongoing pandemic, it’s imperative that we take on these issues sooner rather than later,” Vescovo wrote.

In his weekly news briefing on COVID-19, Parson told reporters that he wants to enact liability protection but not a drawn-out special session. 

Under the Constitution, lawmakers can take up to 60 days for a special session but legislative leaders want to wrap up by the end of the week before Thanksgiving.

Parson said he needs to see the results of meetings with legislators to decide if it is possible to do something quickly on liability protections.

“But what I can’t do is go into a deal where it takes two months to get something done and we’re up against session,” Parson said.

Senate Majority Leader Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, said his goal for the special session is to keep members safe — Cole County has the highest per capita infection rate for COVID-19 so far this month — and get the work done quickly.

“Hopefully we can get in and out quickly and get back home,” Rowden said. “We’d like to get it done, for sure.”

There is interest among many Senators to pass liability protection but getting agreement may be difficult because of differing views on what that means, Rowden said.

“There needs to be some basic understanding of what the world looks like as far as liability in COVID,” he said.

Businesses trying to profiteer off COVID-19 or not taking precautions do not deserve protection, Rowden said. 

“There are folks who are operating in good faith and we want to make sure they know what the world looks like for them,” he said.

Before they began the session, Senators from both parties caucused to select leaders for the next two years, a ritual that follows every election.

There were no surprises, with Rowden, who won a new term Tuesday, retaining his post and President Pro Tem Dave Schatz, R-Sullivan, winning support from Republicans to keep his position. The full Senate will formally make the pro tem selection in January.

Sen. Bill White, R-Joplin, will be assistant floor leader for Republicans.

Democrats gave Minority Floor Leader John Rizzo of Independence another two years in that post and selected state Sen. Brian Williams, D-University City, as assistant floor leader.

House Republicans made their leadership selections on Wednesday, choosing Rep. Dean Plocher, R-St. Louis County, as majority floor leader for the upcoming session and Rep. Hannah Kelly, R-Mountain Grove, as assistant floor leader.