Capitol Perspectives: A time for setting legislative priorities

January 4, 2021 1:00 pm
Exterior Missouri State Capitol building

Missouri State Capitol in Jefferson City. (Photo by ©Walter Bibikow)

The start of Missouri’s legislature during the second year of the COVID-19 pandemic raises questions about how lawmakers will adjust to the realities of this rampant virus.

Just visualize a state Capitol during a normal legislative session with legislators, legislative staffers, lobbyists, agency officials, visitors and reporters crowded into committee rooms and narrow hallways.

Because many legislators refuse to wear face-masks, it’s a potential super-spreader environment endangering all in the building who can spread infection across the state when they return home.

The legislature has taken steps to reduce statehouse exposure.

School groups were discouraged from visiting the Capitol.

The House had small groups of members separately entering the chamber to cast votes rather than requiring all members be in the chamber at the same time.

House and Senate committee hearings will be streamed online so the public can hear, and in the House, actually see what’s going on without being present.

In late 2020, the House inaugurated an internet system to let witnesses testify to committees without physical presence. They’ve also considered suspending having legislative college interns.

Audiences for committee hearings will be socially distanced.

But I’m not sure that is enough given the state’s infection rates.

Those initial steps will not provide full protection from those in the statehouse from those who refuse to wear masks.

A Capitol mask requirement is unlikely given the current political environment and Gov. Mike Parson’s rejection of the idea.

It’s made me think that just as Missourians have reduced activities to deal with the realities of this virus, maybe the legislature should do the same by prioritizing their efforts.

If Missouri’s legislature were to limit efforts to bills of importance with a realistic chance of passage, it significantly could reduce the number of days of potential COVID-19 exposure in the Capitol.

In the past decade, about 2,000 bills were introduced each year. But just ten percent of those bills, often less, passed the General Assembly,

The vast majority of those bills never even got out of committee.

Legislative leaders, committee chairs and reporters easily can identify these dead-end bills.

Yet, endless hours of staff time, committee hearings and chamber debate are spent on measures and amendments with no legislative future.

If the legislature could implement a bipartisan process to restrict efforts to proposals with a realistic future, it might cut Capitol COVID-19 exposure from four to maybe as little as two days per week.

Limiting the legislature’s time would not be as drastic as you might think.

Missouri’s legislature has a decades-long history of adjusting procedures to avoid unrealistic log jams of bills reaching the full House and Senate.

Now, many House bills are not even assigned to committee until it’s too late in the session for them to even get a hearing.

Years ago, Senate leaders limited how many bills Senate committees could report to the full Senate for debate.

Another step could be a bipartisan agreement to limit the endless hours of chamber debate on amendments and motions with no future.

Often, it has struck me these extended chamber sessions are public performances for political, public or special interest attention rather than a real discussion with colleagues to refine legislation.

On the other side, there is tremendous pressure for these dead-end legislative ideas.

Legislative sponsors can claim credit for sponsoring bills with no future.

Lobbyists can claim credit for bills pushed by their clients that get discussed with lawmakers or get heard by committees.

However, I confess I make this recommendation for the legislature to focus on immediate priorities with hesitation.

In past years, the debates and committee hearings on ideas with no immediate future provided an opportunity for legislators and reporters to learn more about emerging problems and ideas facing our state that could have far more importance and traction in future years.

But this year, the health threat facing our state suggests this is not a time for business as usual.

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Phill Brooks
Phill Brooks

Phill Brooks has been a Missouri statehouse reporter since 1970, making him dean of the statehouse press corps. He is the statehouse correspondent for KMOX Radio, director of MDN and an emeritus faculty member of the Missouri School of Journalism. He has covered every governor since the late Warren Hearnes.