JEFFERSON CITY — Like so many things right now, the Missouri legislature looked a little different this session.
Lawmakers took several weeks off in March and April as the state worked to “flatten the curve,” and when they returned April 27 for a final three weeks, many debated through masks while others listened from their offices.
Initially, leaders also talked of simply passing the all-important state budget and bills related the pandemic rather than the blitz of legislation that often accompanies the end of session.
But when the end of session actually came into view, the blitz came anyway, with lawmakers debating big party priorities, niche local issues and everything in between, sometimes through enormous bills running hundreds of pages long.
Here’s are some of the highlights of what made it to the governor's desk and what didn't.
CLEAN MISSOURI OR ’CLEANER’ MISSOURI?
This was a big one for Republicans.
Ever since voters approved changes to the redistricting process in 2018, GOP lawmakers have been trying to get them reversed, and on Wednesday, they formally asked 2020 voters to take care of it.
The Clean Missouri system was hailed by supporters as an antidote to odious partisan gerrymandering.
It calls for a nonpartisan demographer to draw districts with goals of more competitive elections and an assembly that better reflects the statewide vote.
But Republicans castigated the plan as “a partisan train wreck” pushed by out-of-state billionaires trying to help Democrats who bamboozled voters under the cover of nice-sounding ethics reform.
The new GOP proposal asks voters to scrap the demographer, put concerns about competitive races to the backburner and reclaim the old system, which they said ensures legislators truly represent their neighbors.
It may simply be savvy politics, though.
Early analysis suggests maps drawn under the new system after the current census could help Democrats cut into the GOP supermajorities.
Associated Press math found Republicans won 13 more House seats in 2018 than would be expected based on their share of votes for House candidates statewide, a disparity the formula is designed to reduce.
And the fight is far from over.
After Wednesday's vote, the Clean Missouri campaign put out a statement dismissing Republicans' plan as doomed.
"If this amendment survives legal challenges and appears on the ballot later this year, voters will once again deliver a clear mandate for fair maps by rejecting the politicians' gerrymandering scheme."
TWO WAYS TO VOTE BY MAIL
Lawmakers also took on the question of how to conduct elections in a pandemic.
After multiple rounds of bipartisan negotiations, they produced an answer creating two new options for voters to cast ballots by mail in August and November — and not beyond that.
If approved by the governor, the first option would allow anyone deemed high-risk for the coronavirus to vote absentee just as they would if they were already sick.
Those considered high-risk by the bill include those 65 or older, people in nursing homes and people with chronic diseases like diabetes, asthma, or serious heart and lung conditions.
Like other absentee voters, they could request ballots by phone, email, fax or in person, and unlike other absentee voters, they wouldn’t have to go out and get their ballots notarized.
The second option would let everyone else vote by mail, but with requirements to see a notary and without the ability to request a ballot by fax or email.
Republicans said those restrictions would help protect against fraud, though research indicates that absentee fraud is both rare and almost always detected.
Democrats, on the other hand, denounced the restrictions as suppressive.
“The idea that we would make voters request (ballots) in person or by mail in 2020 sounds to me like we are making it harder for them to do it,” Rep. Peter Merideth, D-St. Louis said.
House Speaker Elijah Haahr, R-Springfield, noted in a news conference Friday that Democrats also voted for the plan, too, though.
“Bipartisan scorn and bipartisan support at the same time,” he said.
A BOOST TO COVID-19 TESTING
Lawmakers also approved a plan to cover up to $150 in costs for COVID-19 testing for patients without insurance coverage.
Sen. John Rizzo, D-Independence, proposed the idea as a way to help people feel safer and boost the economy as it slowly re-emerges from shutdowns.
“I would argue that government doesn't reopen businesses, people do,” he said. “And they will do that when they feel safe, and they will feel safe when there is a proper amount of testing done.”
It's not entirely clear how much the idea will cost or what impact it will have.
More Missourians get insurance through their employer than any other route, according to Kaiser Family Foundation estimates, so it's likely some of the thousands laid off in recent weeks would qualify.
But in Springfield, the city-county health department is already covering the cost of tests it conducts.
Likewise, hospital systems Cox and Mercy have offered free online consultations for weeks, and representatives for each system said Friday that neither hospital has been charging uninsured patients for tests.
But CoxHealth spokesperson Kaitlyn McConnell said the measure would nevertheless be welcome.
“As we move forward and test increasing numbers of individuals, this funding will be a great help to our organization,” she wrote in an email.
HELP FOR PAYDAY LENDERS
Lawmakers also passed a bill that could help shield a number of payday lenders from a $5,000 licensing fee the Springfield City Council wants voters to approve in August.
Language added to the bill by Rep. Curtis Trent, R-Springfield would specifically bar cities from imposing fees on “installment lenders” that they don’t impose on other lenders.
And while Trent said installment lenders are different from payday lenders and that language had “nothing to do with payday loans,” state records show more than half of the payday loan establishments in Springfield are also licensed installment lenders.
To be sure, the loans are different.
Payday loans must be less than $500 and are supposed to be paid back within weeks, while installment loans can be larger and are paid back over four or more months. But installment loans can also carry triple-digit annual interest and create similar problems for borrowers.
Sen. Jill Schupp, D-Creve Coeur, decried the bill as it was ushered through the Senate.
“If nothing else, this pandemic has exposed how many people are living on the edge and are living paycheck to paycheck,” she said. “I think this hurts some of our most vulnerable.”
WHAT DIDN’T PASS
Of course, the pile of bills that didn’t make it to the governor’s desk was bigger than the pile of bills that did.
And as usual, a bill that would have established a prescription drug monitoring program fell into the first pile, keeping Missouri as the only state without one.
Earlier in the session, it seemed like the decade-long fight over the idea, which is designed to stop people from going from doctor to doctor to procure more opioids, might finally come to an end.
Senate conservatives who usually kill the idea found a compromise they could live with and allowed the bill to move forward. But then the House rejected their plan, setting off a stalemate that didn’t budge again.
Other bills on the wrong side of the finish line included a plan backed by Haahr, the House speaker from Springfield, to block a renewable energy company from using eminent domain to build a transmission line across northern Missouri.
The idea made it through the House with no problem but met bipartisan opposition in the Senate from renewable energy advocates and conservatives wary of going back on a deal the company made with the state’s utility regulator.
Another attempt to accomplish similar ends in an unrelated bill passed the Senate before senators understood what they’d done, but the ploy ultimately backfired when they discovered it and reversed their decision.
Another contained a proposal from Rep. Steve Helms, R-Springfield, designed to draw more manufacturers of medicines or medical supplies to the state with tax breaks.
Helms, a Republican, called those measures “common sense, fiscally responsible incentives” that will lure manufacturers and their jobs from China, which currently dominates the industry.
But economists said the incentives were unlikely to draw many businesses and that the state would likely lose money on any they did.