The Missouri Legislature will open its 2021 session on Wednesday. Some area legislators expect that COVID-19 and the budget will dominate the session. Adobe stock

Sen. Bill White, R-Joplin, has his name attached to almost 30 bills for the legislative session that begins Wednesday.

He knows that only one of them is guaranteed to get some discussion time.

"Last session I worked on COVID-19 liability just for health care," White said. "I was a co-sponsor of the last one. ... This one doesn't look like the original bill, but the idea is the same."

Senate Bill 42, sponsored by White, would give extra protections from civil actions to health care providers working to treat COVID-19 during a state of emergency. It's a measure that lawmakers tried to get passed — but could not — during a second special session last year related to the pandemic.

White's bill will be one of a number of measures related to the coronavirus that are expected to be heard during the next legislative session.

"COVID is 'the' priority, with a capital T," White said.

The liability bill gets more narrow with a focus on COVID-19, White said, and is based on some commonsense protections. If passed in its current form:

• Hospitals, nursing homes and other health care centers would be protected from liability as long as they were following state guidelines for preventing spread of the disease.

• In addition to posting signs about recommended mask wearing and social distancing, those signs would also have a warning that people entering are doing so at their own risk.

• Businesses that altered their manufacturing in order to make products related to the pandemic, such as a brewery shifting from making beer to making hand sanitizer, would be protected from certain liabilities.

White said he is working with trial attorneys and tort reform experts to perfect the language of the bill.

"People generally agree with this," White said. "The next thing to do will be to bring in (attorneys and trial experts). We'll talk to them, and if they don't like what we are doing, or if they can do better, we'll let them offer something back."

Rep. Cody Smith, R-Carthage, said other measures related to the pandemic also will be brought up for discussion, including measures that limit the decision-making abilities of local authorities to react to a pandemic and will provide incentives for school districts that have switched to virtual learning to return to in-person classes.

Tight budget

The session also will focus on the budget. Smith, chair of the House Budget Committee, said the state already is bracing for a $400 million reduction in general revenue.

"(The House, Senate and governor) just went through our consensus estimate process," Smith said. "We didn't achieve a consensus last year because of differing opinions. This year we did, and that's encouraging. The bad news is that everyone agrees the budget will contract."

According to information from The Associated Press, budget officials predict Missouri will collect about $9.78 billion in revenue next fiscal year, which begins in July. That’s about $200 million less than the $9.98 billion that officials previously had planned on collecting.

Smith said revenue from the sales tax has been stronger than expected. But factors such as higher unemployment and business closings will affect the budget.

More about the direction of the budget will be revealed after the governor's State of the State address, set for Jan. 27. Traditionally, the governor announces funding priorities during that speech. Gov. Mike Parson said in December he will likely propose a reduced spending plan for this session.

Pandemic preparation

Both White and Smith said their legislative bodies are better prepared to get work done through the pandemic. Last year, the outbreak halted the session for more than a month, leading to a scramble in May to complete the budget, Smith said.

Livestreamed web conferences and video meetings will be a part of this year's legislative process, and larger spaces are being used whenever possible. Smith said his committee will be meeting on the House floor in order to spread out across the room.

"Like the whole workforce, we've all been learning to work remotely to the degree that we can," Smith said. "We will accept remote testimony for hearings in the House, so that's a positive development. But one thing we can't do remotely is vote."

Even the Senate, which has taken a no-computers approach to its main floor, appears to be easing up for the better, White said. He said he hopes tablet computers will make their way to senators' desks.

"We need to be able to find what we need to find," said White, who championed text search tools on such devices. "The idea of searching through paperwork to find what we need is crazy. We're supposed to be a deliberative body, but we can't be if we need to search through all those pages to know what we are talking about."

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Joe Hadsall is the digital editor for The Joplin Globe. He has been the editor of the former Nixa News-Enterprise and has worked for the Christian County Headliner News and 417 Magazine.