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Attempt to lessen power of local officials during health emergencies fails in Senate

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — After nearly eight hours of negotiation, a bill meant to lessen the power of local officials during public health emergencies was rejected by the Senate Thursday morning.

SB 12 would have prohibited political subdivisions from imposing rules restricting the number of people gathering or residing on private residential property during a state of emergency related to public health. It also sought to restrict political subdivisions from imposing a public health order that directly or indirectly closes or restricts businesses, churches, schools, and other places from operating for longer than 15 days within a 180-day period without approval from governing bodies. Its perfection was ultimately rejected by a vote of 11-19. 

“We’ve discussed the distinction between traditional public health functions, such as ensuring food safety and responding to natural disasters, and the widespread and sometimes arbitrary shutdowns of an entire class of businesses,” sponsor Sen. Bob Onder said when debate on the bill began Wednesday afternoon. “These additions are consistent with longstanding constitutional principles that we all enjoy under the Bill of Rights.”

The bill would have granted eligible taxpayers residing in communities that imposed shutdowns longer than the 15-day period a tax credit for fees owed on real property. Monitoring of people ordered to isolate or quarantine would have also been prohibited. Other provisions in the bill restricted subdivisions from making rules on travel and access to utilities. 

An amendment from Sen. Steven Roberts would have put a one-year sunset on the shutdown restrictions. Roberts said the move would allow officials to respond to future disasters beyond the coronavirus.

“What about the next pandemic?” Roberts said. “If we deal with something more serious, I wouldn’t want us to be shortsighted and think maybe we’re limiting the local governments; it’s local governments that have their finger on the pulse of our communities.” 

Roberts held court with Sens. Onder, Mike Moon, and Andrew Koenig over the early hours of the debate on his amendment, all of whom wrote language included in the bill. After more than seven hours on the floor and conversations between several Democratic lawmakers, the amendment was withdrawn early Thursday morning. The bill’s perfection motion was swiftly voted down, with nine GOP members, including Sens. Jason Bean, Karla Eslinger, Mike Cierpiot, Elaine Gannon, Lincoln Hough, Sandy Crawford, Justin Brown, Bill White, and Mike Bernskoetter voting against it. 

The bill was laid over last month after an evening of floor debate. The conversation paused after a handful of failed amendments and a discussion between Sens. Koenig and Jill Schupp over the safety of the Capitol building and the closing of businesses. During the initial discussion, some legislators decried St. Louis County Executive Dr. Sam Page’s handling of the pandemic while others argued the bill would obstruct local control.

The language was an amalgamation of bills from six legislators; they passed through committee together in January before being compounded.

This story has been updated.