JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — It was an unusual session for the Missouri General Assembly this spring, with the state legislature leaving the capitol for about six weeks due to the coronavirus outbreak.
After a state legislator tested positive for the virus, the General Assembly paused in mid-March, returning in late April for the final three weeks of the session.
“It was definitely different,” says Samantha Davis, Missouri Corn Growers Association director of policy.
Casey Wasser, director of policy for the Missouri Soybean Association, says the last few weeks saw fewer people in the capitol building and none of the usual busloads of school children touring the grounds.
“The halls were eerily empty when I’d go over there,” he says.
The extended break in the middle of the session limited the progress on several pieces of legislation, Davis says.
“That’s really the prime time when you have hearings,” she says.
“The legislative process takes time,” Wasser says.
B.J. Tanksley, director of state legislative affairs for Missouri Farm Bureau, says the early stages of the legislative session were looking like it would be very successful for agriculture.
“It was cut short by about six weeks, and really did a number on some issues,” he says.
The state legislature is constitutionally required to pass a budget and that was the main focus when they returned to the capitol.
“When the legislature returned, they had to focus on their constitutional responsibility to have a budget to the governor by May 8,” Wasser says.
One item that did not make it to the finish line, despite support from some ag groups, was eminent domain reform.
Davis says an eminent domain bill in the legislature this spring would have set some limits.
“That legislation really would’ve reined in eminent domain and how it can be used on for-profit projects,” she says.
A filibuster stopped the bill in the Senate near the end of the session.
Tanksley says eminent domain reform was the “top priority,” with Farm Bureau wanting to secure property rights.
“That’s not to say the (transmission) line can’t come through, but we want to let landowners have a real negotiation,” he says. “When they have eminent domain, they have the ultimate trump card. … That was our top priority, and we’re really frustrated for a second year in a row to see a filibuster stop it.”
Another ag-related bill that fell short dealt with biodiesel.
“The biodiesel legislation would’ve worked its way up to a B20 standard in Missouri,” Davis says.
Davis and Wasser are hopeful the bill will still get passed either in a special session later this year or next year during the regular session. Wasser says biodiesel has a lot of benefits.
“It reduces feed costs, it adds support to Missouri row crops’ value,” he says. “It brings value to the state while reducing greenhouse gas emissions.”
The biodiesel bill passed the House but did not get Senate consideration.
“We just ran out of time,” Wasser says.
“That’s another one, if we had had those extra weeks, we think we could’ve built support for that,” Tanksley says.
On the positive side for the agriculture industry, the state budget included $20 million to support small- to medium-sized meat processors in the state affected by the coronavirus outbreak.
Davis says the budget item gives the Department of Agriculture flexibility for how to use it best.
“It was written pretty broad intentionally,” she says. “The department of ag I’m sure is going to find the best way to put that to use.”
The legislature also passed a joint resolution relating to the Amendment 1 “Clean Missouri” initiative petition voters approved, and how congressional districts are drawn. The amendment had a variety of provisions to improve ethics in the state’s politics, and also set policies for how Missouri’s congressional districts would be drawn, including making competitive districts a priority. Davis says some ag groups had concerns that given where Missouri’s Democrat- and Republican-leaning regions are located, it might have required some unusual district shaping to get competitive districts.
“It would’ve prioritized partisan fairness over making sure they’re contiguous and keeping like communities together,” she says.
Tanksley says the joint resolution would help make sure rural interests are represented.
“We feel rural people should be represented by rural people,” he says.
The joint resolution will go to voters to decide on how the state’s congressional districts will be drawn following the 2020 Census.
Another success for ag groups was a rural broadband bill that the legislature passed. The legislation extended the state’s rural broadband grant program until 2027 and established a record keeping process for how rural broadband funds are used in the state, to provide a level of accountability, Davis says. The bill will help, but the work is ongoing, she says.
“With broadband, it’s like baby steps,” Davis says. “It’s hard to get that last mile.”
Wasser says the record keeping aspects of the bill will help make sure the dollars go where they are intended and the work gets done.
Bills passed during this year’s legislative session will go to Gov. Parson to be signed into law or vetoed.