Missouri lawmakers likely to consider COVID liability protection in special session

House Speaker Elijah Haahr, R-Springfield, presides over a special session of the legislature on Nov. 10, 2020 (photo courtesy of Tim Bommel/House Communications).

JEFFERSON CITY—The special legislative session called to provide new spending authority for federal COVID-19 relief funds will likely be extended to include a bill providing liability protections for businesses and schools, House Speaker Elijah Haahr said Tuesday.

In a brief interview after the Missouri House passed a $1.3 billion spending bill on a 133-4 vote, Haahr said he and other legislative leaders discussed what a liability protection bill should include during a conference call Monday with Gov. Mike Parson.

“Obviously, it is his call at the end of the day, but I think it is pretty likely he is going to make that call,” said Haahr, R-Springfield.

House Majority Leader Rob Vescovo, R-Arnold, speaks with House Budget Chairman Cody Smith, R-Carthage, during the Nov. 10, 2020 special session (photo courtesy of Tim Bommel/House Communications).

House Majority Leader Rob Vescovo, R-Arnold, called last week for Parson to expand the session’s agenda. He cited the ongoing threat of lawsuits by employees or members of the public who have caught COVID-19 on the premises of a business, school or health care provider.

In response, Parson said he wanted to see a bill that could pass quickly. Lawmakers have about two months left in their current terms before newly elected members are sworn in early next year.

The bill being discussed would address most, if not all, of the liability issues, Haahr said.

“We’ve discussed different language, but the language I have seen, at least so far, is fairly comprehensive,” Haahr said.

Reached by phone, Senate Majority Leader Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, said he thinks the chances are “better than 50 percent” that Parson will expand the session call. The governor later confirmed to The Missouri Times that he will make the call to expand the session sometime in the next few days.

The Missouri Chamber of Commerce wrote Parson asking for the liability protection. The legislation should “protect businesses from opportunistic claims alleging exposure to COVID-19 on their premises,” the letter signed by Chamber CEO Dan Mehan and board chair Al Koller stated. “This temporary, limited immunity from liability should be available if businesses follow government guidance on public health measures.”

The House passed the spending bill after about 90 minutes of debate in the morning and a brief session in the afternoon. The House expects to hear back from the Senate by Nov. 20 with any changes in the bill and by then would know if a liability protection bill is under debate or has passed the Senate.

The House approved the bill without changing the proposal passed Monday by the House Budget Committee. The only proposed amendment, from state Rep. Deb Lavender, D-Kirkwood, to add money for food distribution, was defeated on a 91-43 vote.

The House vote took place as the state continues to see the worst period of the coronavirus pandemic. In the past week, there have been three days with more than 4,000 new cases statewide and three more with more than 3,000 cases. 

Prior to Oct. 9, there had been only one day with as many as 2,000 cases. Since Oct. 24, there have been only three days with fewer than 2,000 cases.

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State Rep. Jon Carpenter, D-Kansas City, noted that there is good news about a vaccine and that the state expects to start inoculating health care providers and nursing home residents before the end of the year.

Most people won’t be able to get their first shot until April, state Health Director Randall Williams said Tuesday in testimony to a House committee. The Pfizer vaccine, which is expected to be the first available, requires two doses.

“We have months between now and then and the trajectory line for those months is looking really bad,” Carpenter warned his colleagues.

The spending bill approved Tuesday includes $752 million in new spending authority for federal coronavirus relief funds, $96.8 million to distribute child support payments intercepted from tax refunds and unemployment benefits and $2 million to start a state witness protection program.

The two most pressing items were the additional authority for spending CARES Act funds delivered to the state by the federal treasury and more authority to distribute intercepted funds for child support.

Most CARES Act funds need to be spent by Dec. 30 and the administration intends to deposit money unspent by that date, perhaps as much as $400 million, in the state unemployment fund. Using the money for that purpose will help protect employers from a tax increase, or at least postpone an increase, as the state unemployment fund is depleted.

The child support funds, intercepted from federal stimulus payments, unemployment benefits and tax refunds, can’t be distributed to custodial parents without additional appropriations.

The debate was an opportunity to vent for Republicans frustrated by decisions that have left many children learning from home and for Democrats to argue for additional funding to cities that have exhausted earlier aid packages.

Rep. Justin Hill, R-Wentzville, during debate in the Missouri House on Nov. 10, 2020 (photo courtesy of Tim Bommel/House Communications).

State Rep. Justin Hill, R-Wentzville, was upset that $75 million was being allocated to public schools for food distribution, arguing that the money would be better spent seeking ways to put most kids in classrooms.

There are teachers afraid to go to work because they may get sick with COVID-19 and parents who are fearful about their child returning home with an infection, Hill said, noting that there is no item to address those concerns.

“Meanwhile, this budget seeks to give (the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education) $75 million for food, food,” he said, raising his voice to emphasize the final word. “Our school districts have become glorified lunchrooms. They are not educating children but they certainly are going to have money to give out free food.”

Hill suggested that the money could be spent on tutoring students who have fallen behind in their studies while trying to learn online.

Of the state’s 557 school districts and charter schools, 91 were providing all education online on Monday and 154 were providing all instruction in classrooms. The remainder were either working on a blended model or allowing parents to keep their children home for online instruction.

The meal funding is just as important as classroom dollars, state Rep. Raychel Proudie, D-Ferguson, said. Hungry children have difficulty learning, she said.

“I can assure you that those meals that come by bus every day,” Proudie said, “they are going into children’s stomachs.”