News Briefs

Missouri Senate to vote on COVID spending bill as pared-back special session nears close

By: - December 2, 2020 9:31 am

A view of the Missouri Senate chamber from the visitors gallery (photo courtesy of the Missouri Senate).

The Missouri Senate is expected Wednesday to complete the work of a special session called to spend unappropriated federal coronavirus aid, following Gov. Mike Parson’s decision Tuesday to spike a bill sheltering businesses from COVID-19-related lawsuits.

The Senate Appropriations Committee changed nothing in the $1.3 billion spending bill approved Nov. 10 in the Missouri House when it voted on the bill after a hearing Tuesday. Senate action on the spending bill — and the bill creating liability protections — was delayed when at least one Republican Senator and two staff members tested positive for COVID-19.

Appropriations Chairman Dan Hegeman, R-Cosby, reminded the panel before the vote that if the Senate makes any changes in the bill, the House must convene again to ratify the altered bill or extend the special session even further by demanding negotiations.

Liability protection will now be debated in the regular legislative session that begins Jan. 6. The General Assembly on Tuesday began posting bills already filed for the regular session, including legislation to limit the authority of local officials to impose pandemic-related restrictions on businesses and religious gatherings.

The filings come as St. Louis County moved to shut down five restaurants that have defied the county’s order to limit service to delivery, take-out and outdoor dining. The five included Satchmo’s in Chesterfield, where Republican lawmakers held a news conference denouncing the limits.

In a news release, the county justified the ban on indoor dining by labeling it as one of the most likely ways for the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 to spread.

We know that masks work in vastly reducing the chance of spreading COVID-19 to others because they limit the sharing of air droplets and aerosols that carry the coronavirus,” the release stated. “Indoor dining is a super-spread enabler because people take off their masks when they eat or drink.”

St. Louis County has had 47,489 total COVID-19 cases, according to Department of Health and Senior Services data released Wednesday, almost 16 percent of the state’s total. There have been 18,162 new cases since Nov. 1 in the county.

Statewide, the health department reported 2,679 new infections Wednesday, the first time new cases have been below 3,000 on consecutive days since Nov. 3 and 4. The seven-day average of reported cases fell to 3,225 per day, the lowest since Nov. 7.

There have been 305,370 cases of COVID-19 in Missouri since the first was identified in March, with 4,043 deaths. The positive rate on tests remains stubbornly high at 20.3 percent, with 78 local health jurisdictions recording a positive rate greater than the state average.

Hospitalizations have been climbing in the past week, with 188 net new admissions since Friday. There were 2,779 people being treated as inpatients Tuesday, preliminary state data shows, just 72 below the peak set Nov. 18. Less than 15 percent of adult ICU beds in the state were available on Saturday, the latest data from the Missouri Hospital Association shows.

The data for individual counties on the state dashboard is often significantly different from the tallies reported by local health departments around the state. That is due to differences in what is being reported, health department spokeswoman Lisa Cox stated in an email to the Independent.

Part of it is timing of when case reports are processed and some counties report positive antigen test results and probable cases, where a person has symptoms and lives with someone who has tested positive but has not been tested themselves. The state data only includes the highly reliable PCR test that uses a sample taken by a swab through the nose.

“You have some that include or exclude congregate care facilities like long-term care or prisons, etc.,” Cox noted.

The Senate will convene at 10 a.m. with the appropriation bill and Parson’s appointments the only items on the agenda. While the bill left the committee on a unanimous vote without changes, that doesn’t mean every member is happy with every item.

During the committee discussion, Sen. Bill Eigel, R-Weldon Spring, said he was not comfortable with the broad authority allowed in a $752 million appropriation of CARES Act funding that must be used by Dec. 30 or returned to the federal treasury.

“I am not sure this is a step the state needs to take right now,” Eigel said. “We don’t have an indication of what this money is going to be spent on.”

The large appropriation is needed to spend unappropriated CARES Act funds and allow for additional funding expected as a match for state emergency spending on protective gear, Budget Director Dan Haug told the committee. It is also needed to use CARES Act funds sent to counties but unspent, he said.

The balance of unspent funds will be squirreled away in the state unemployment insurance fund, Haug said.

That decision, intended to keep the fund balance large enough to avoid a tax increase on employers in 2022, drew criticism from state Sen. Lauren Arthur, D-Kansas City.

Taxes that support the fund were cut for 2021, Arthur noted. She suggested that sending money to unemployed workers would be a better use of the money.

I am hearing from unemployed workers whose benefits have expired,” Arthur said, “and are wondering how they will put food on the table day-to-day.”

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Rudi Keller
Rudi Keller

Rudi Keller covers the state budget, energy and the legislature. He’s spent 22 of his 30 years in journalism covering Missouri government and politics, most recently as the news editor of the Columbia Daily Tribune. Keller has won awards for spot news and investigative reporting.