A view of the Missouri Senate chamber from the visitors gallery (photo courtesy of the Missouri Senate).
The Missouri Senate approved a $1.3 billion bill spending remaining federal CARES Act funds Wednesday without any debate on the particular budget items.
Instead, the brief debate that essentially ended the second special legislative session of the year focused on the impact of health orders in St. Louis County and plans for legislation next year to limit local authority to impose such orders.
On Tuesday, St. Louis County Department of Public Health closed five restaurants that have defied an order banning indoor dining. In a release announcing the closure, the health agency said maskless dining enables rapid spread of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.
The health department action came after Sen. Andrew Koenig, R-Manchester, held a news conference outside one of the eateries, Satchmo’s in Chesterfield, to promote a bill he intends to file that would make local health orders subject to legislative review.
Also on Tuesday, the St. Louis County Council voted 4-3 to overturn the health order, a vote that a spokesman for County Executive Sam Page said was symbolic, without the force of law.
“We have people’s rights being completely trampled on in St. Louis County,” Koenig said Wednesday during debate.
During discussion on the Senate floor with Sen. Bill Eigel, R-Weldon Spring, the two accused Page of being a “tyrant” and said it is the job of lawmakers to limit local governments when they overstep their authority.
Anticipating arguments against legislative action – including opponents who will quote Parson’s oft-repeated support for local rather than state action – Eigel said lawmakers are a brake on local excesses.
“Local control is actually authority granted by the state to local governments to more efficiently provide government protections at the local level,” he said. “We have a role to step in and push back on local governments.”
The spending bill sought by Gov. Mike Parson will provide $752 million in new authority to spend CARES Act funding. The bill also includes $96.8 million to distribute child support payments intercepted from tax refunds and unemployment benefits, $18.7 million for grants to local agencies to prevent homelessness to and $2 million to start a state witness protection program.
Since Parson announced the special session on Oct. 21, Missouri has endured the worst period yet of the pandemic.
In that time, the Department of Health and Senior Services has reported 144,681 new infections, 47 percent of all the cases reported since March. The department has also identified 1,402 additional deaths since the call was issued, 35 percent of all deaths in the state from COVID-19.
On Oct. 21, there were 1,548 people being treated in Missouri hospitals, including 175 on ventilators. At that time, 30 percent of ICU beds were available and 35 percent of all hospital beds were available.
On Tuesday, the number of inpatients stood at 2,779, and on Sunday, the most recent date with full information, 354 people were on ventilators. Only 15 percent of adult ICU beds were available and about 25 percent of adult hospital beds were available.
Parson sent out a notice Wednesday morning that he would have a late-afternoon news conference with the Missouri Hospital Association to announce steps to alleviate pressure on hospitals.
The agenda for the special session was pared back Tuesday when Parson dropped his request that lawmakers approve a bill shielding businesses from lawsuits by workers and patrons who claim they were exposed to the coronavirus.
During a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing Tuesday, there was some questioning of the particular spending items, including concerns that the authority for spending CARES Act funds is too broad. If any changes had been made to the House-passed bill, it would have needed another vote in the lower chamber or, potentially, negotiations over differences that would have brought both chambers back for additional votes.
During the hearing, state Budget Director Dan Haug pointed to several items that will use federal funds to replace state general revenue dollars. One item is $75 million for school lunches, which drew the attention of Eigel.
“They are asking for money that is not going to increase the amount of food we are buying for kids,” he said. “If we don’t need this money why are we granting this authority? If it is used to backfill other expenses in the budget, why did we put this in the budget?”
Missouri initially received $2.1 billion from the CARES Act, the federal legislation passed in March that also provided stimulus payments to individuals and families and a $600 per week supplement to unemployment benefits through July.
Of the $752 million in new CARES Act spending authority, $282 million is needed to spend money on hand that has no appropriation authority, Haug told the committee Tuesday. The state has also learned that the federal government will replace 75 percent of CARES Act funds spent on protective gear for health workers.
The state intends to purchase $200 million in protective equipment and expects $150 million back, Haug said.
In addition, he said, counties that received a share of the state allotment have only spent about $174 million of the $520 million distributed in April. That money must be returned if it is not spent by Dec. 30, and the appropriation bill includes enough authority for the state to use whatever is returned, Haug said.
Unspent money being held at the deadline will be transferred to the state unemployment insurance fund, Haug said. That could be $350- to $400 million.
“We don’t want to get caught in a place where we don’t have enough authority to spend this money,” Haug said.
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