JEFFERSON CITY — Much of the state won’t “reopen” until Monday, but the Missouri legislature is already back in full swing.
After more than a month of nothing but budget-related votes, lawmakers have largely returned to business as usual this week.
Masks and social distancing are new, as is the lack of crowded hallways.
But key Republican priorities, like asking voters to reverse changes they made to the redistricting process, are back in focus.
Committees are combining dozens of bills into single pieces of legislation in hopes of passing many at once, just as they do near the end of every session.
Some changes address the novel coronavirus pandemic, but many others don’t.
Here’s a rundown of some of what they’re working on.
The Clean Missouri ’fix’
Republican lawmakers have toiled for more than a year on a plan asking voters to reverse changes they made to the redistricting process that could cost conservatives seats in the next decade.
They’re not stopping now.
The Senate has already approved the plan, and a House committee was set to take it up Thursday afternoon.
At issue are major shifts the voter-approved amendment known as Clean Missouri made to how legislative districts are drawn.
The first empowered a new, “nonpartisan” demographer to take the first crack at new maps, rather than the usual panels of political appointees.
The half-Republican, half-Democratic panels will still review the maps, but they’ll need seven of 10 votes to make edits to ensure changes have significant bipartisan appeal.
The second changes the map drawers’ priorities.
In the past, they’ve focused on drawing compact shapes. But now, that takes a back seat to drawing districts that produce competitive races and better align the overall makeup of the legislature — where Republicans hold supermajorities in both houses — with the outcomes in statewide elections.
That last part is key: those elections have been a lot closer than individual statehouse races in recent years.
Republicans’ plan, which some have dubbed “Cleaner Missouri,” asks voters to restore much of the old system, nixing the new demographer and shifting concerns about competitive races and partisan balance to the back burner.
Halting the Grain Belt Express
Another top priority for Republicans, including House Speaker Elijah Haahr of Springfield, is reining in a renewable energy project called the Grain Belt Express.
Chicago-based Invenergy wants to build a transmission line across northern Missouri to connect renewable wind energy from Kansas to customers here and in states farther east.
Advocates for the project tout its potential to create hundreds of construction jobs and long-term savings for municipal utilities in more than three dozen cities, including Columbia.
But Invenergy wants to clear the way using eminent domain, something Republican lawmakers, especially those in rural areas, say they can’t abide.
For years, they’ve called out the project as an attack on property rights and the agricultural industry, and in February, the House approved a plan to revoke the company’s eminent domain power granted by the Public Service Commission for the second year in a row.
The influential Missouri Farm Bureau applauded.
“There’s nothing more important to Missouri farmers than property rights,” Bureau President Blake Hurst said. “Today the House of Representatives spoke up for the people of rural Missouri to rein in the abuse of eminent domain.”
Now, the legislation is tucked into multiple omnibus bills House members hope to send back to the Senate for passage.
Pandemic absentee voting?
Of course, some bills actually apply directly to the pandemic.
Take one bill up for a hearing in a House committee Thursday with a line allowing anyone to vote absentee during a state of emergency this year to avoid the risk of getting or spreading the virus.
For months, leading county clerks such as Greene County’s Shane Schoeller and Boone County’s Brianna Lennon have been calling for that and more, and it appears it may pay off.
Currently, only people who have one of six specific excuses, like a religious belief or travel away from home on election day, can mail in or drop off a ballot early.
“Confinement due to illness” is also an excuse, but it’s been unclear whether that would apply to healthy people staying at home, and Schoeller has said clerks want something that covers everyone.
Several other states, including those controlled by Republicans wary of expanding absentee voting, have already made similar tweaks.
GOP-led Indiana, another state that usually requires specific excuses to vote absentee, is letting everyone do it in its June 2 primary, for example.
And Haahr, Missouri’s Republican House Speaker, has also gotten behind the measure.
“I think everybody can say, 'Yes, if you're in a state of emergency, especially during a pandemic that manifests itself and spreads from person to person, we do not want you coming to the polls,’” Haahr said in a call with local business leaders Friday. “That is a very appropriate excuse for absentee voting.”
As for the rest of the kitchen sink ...
Also on the table is almost everything else, it seems.
Other COVID-related legislation under consideration includes a plan to shield health care providers from most lawsuits while they’re rendering care or assistance in connection with the current pandemic in good faith. Exceptions would be made if the wrongdoing is deemed particularly egregious.
Lawmakers are also thinking about creating a special committee to coordinate their response to the pandemic.
And then there are the many other pieces of legislation tucked into omnibus bills, some of which run hundreds of pages long.
Some have sparked controversy, like one that would exempt private schools from paying voter-approved minimum wage increases.
Others attempt to address more technical issues, like a legal process for removing abandoned planes from airports.
The legislative session ends May 15.