Some members of the Missouri State Legislature are looking to curb the emergency powers of local officials. And, although he’s not named in the proposed legislation, St. Louis County Executive Dr. Sam Page is clearly the target of the new limits being sought.
“The actions taken by elected political officeholders in St. Louis County and other parts of the state, without benefit of scientific or empirical evidence, much less the law, have been devastating,” Gary M. Hollingsworth, a local accountant and business owner, said in written testimony provided to state lawmakers.
According to Hollingsworth, his company processes payroll for clients in 44 states and the District of Columbia. He believes this function has given him a unique perspective on the impact of COVID-19 health mandates locally.
“We have seen first-hand the direct impact of temporary closures, reopenings, subsequent re-closures, and more business closures,” Hollingsworth told the lawmakers.
The authority of Page and St. Louis County’s Department of Public Health to issue public mandates that impact local business has been challenged numerous times over the past year. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, business owners and public officials have scrutinized both the science on which the mandates are based and Page’s legal authority to issue those sweeping orders.
Page was invited to testify before the House Special Committee on Small Business but declined due to scheduling conflicts. Instead, he sent written comments.
“These targeted protocols have been effective in slowing the rise in new cases while preserving the ability of businesses to operate,” Page wrote in a Jan. 25 letter to lawmakers. “Our community’s compliance with public health protocols has protected our residents’ safety and health.”
Rep. Derek Grier (R-District 100) has introduced House Bill 602 that he says is intended to protect “the rights of citizens from the abuse or misuse of emergency powers given to elected officials.” Grier’s legislative district includes parts of the West St. Louis County communities of Chesterfield, Ballwin, Winchester, and Town & Country.
“It is vital that we reign in the emergency powers of our elected officials,” Grier said in a press release. “A public health emergency should not give state and local officials absolute free reign to infringe on our constitutional liberties.”
Grier is one of several state lawmakers offering legislation that would redefine or otherwise limit the authority of state and local officials to issue health mandates. Rep. Jim Murphy (R-District 94) has proposed a similar measure in House Bill 75. His proposal would limit a health order’s ability to close businesses for no more than 45 days and require any such orders to have the support of the “full governing body of the governing entity.”
In simple terms, that means Murphy wants city councils, boards of aldermen and county councils to be unanimous in regard to any future closures. If a local government wants to shut down businesses for longer than 45 days, they have to obtain “prior approval” from the state legislature. Murphy’s legislative district includes parts of St. Louis County, outside of West County but Sen. Andrew Koenig’s District 15 does.
District 15 contains all or portions of Ballwin, Chesterfield, Clarkson Valley, Des Peres, Ellisville, Manchester, Twin Oaks, Wildwood, Winchester and unincorporated St. Louis County.
Representing businesses in those communities, Koenig authored a sister bill to Grier’s in the form of Senate Bill 21, which has been combined with other bills into Senate Bill 12, sponsored by Sen. Bob Onder (R-St. Charles) and assigned to the Committee on Health and Pensions of which Onder is chair and Koenig is vice-chair. Other local members of the committee include Sen. Bill Eigel (R-District 23) and Sen. Jill Schupp (D-District 24).
Among its provisions, SB12 would limit the number of days during which a governing body can shut down or restrict the operation of businesses, churches, schools or other places of public or private gatherings during a state of emergency. Additionally, SB12 would prohibit local authorities from issuing orders, rules or regulations that limit the number of people gathering or residing on private residential property during a state of emergency.
If passed, the act would require that two-thirds of the governing body approve, modify and approve, or reject any public health order within 15 days of its enactment.
All three of the bills are headed to committees for more testimony and debate. Although Republicans have sizable majorities in both the Missouri House and Senate, it is not clear that any of the proposed legislation will become law.
Gov. Mike Parson has resisted all earlier calls to support limits on emergency powers of local governments. Page and other local officials across the state are counting on Parson to maintain that stance.