FILE - Sen. Bob Onder, Missouri, Missouri Legislature Crime Session, 2016

FILE - In this Thursday, March 31, 2016, file photo, Missouri state Sen. Bob Onder, R-Lake Saint Louis, works at his desk in the Senate chamber in Jefferson City, Mo.

(The Center Square) – At least six bills seeking to restrict local officials from imposing emergency health orders that curtail business operations have been swirling about the Missouri Senate since the 2021 session began in early January.

In an effort to coalesce the measures into a comprehensive package, many provisions within the various bills have been incorporated into a bill forwarded by Sen. Bob Onder, R-Lake Saint Louis, who is spearheading the preemption effort being pushed by the Senate’s Conservative Caucus.

But after a four-hour hearing before the Senate Health & Pensions Committee Wednesday, Onder temporarily withdrew the measure from consideration, but said his House Bill 12 will reappear before the panel again.

HB 12 would shift emergency authority to elected city/county councils and commissions rather than a city manager or county administrator or public health official, but also incorporates provisions from six bills, such as tax credits for businesses shuttered by emergency public health orders and 30-day caps on such orders.

“This bill would restore control to the county council,” Onder said.

The bills were spurred by alleged abuses of emergency authority by county health boards and local elected officials who imposed early closing times, occupancy limits, total closures and penalties for noncompliance on businesses.

Missouri Republicans are particularly incensed by coronavirus mitigation measures imposed in St. Louis County that shut down businesses and restricted operating hours and seating capacities, devastating the county’s restaurant and bar businesses.

“I never imagined a situation where I would have to flee to the city of St. Louis to be more free,” said Sen. Andrew Koenig, R-Manchester, in January when he vowed to file a bill preempting public health orders.

“This is an emergency situation where people’s lives are being destroyed; people are going into bankruptcy because of these regulations, and they have no right to do what they’re doing,” he said. “We have people’s rights being completely trampled on in St. Louis County.”

During Wednesday’s discussion before the Senate Health & Pensions Committee, Koenig reiterated his call to clip local government authority in public health emergencies.

“If we learned anything during this pandemic,” he said, “it's that we can’t trust local governments” adding that “the left uses the power of government to lock people down.”

As a result of those actions, “Some of the businesses are not coming back. It’s just so sad,” said Sen. Mike Cierpiot, R-Lee’s Summit.

Senate bills incorporated in the temporarily withdrawn SB 12 include:

  • SB 20, filed by Sen. Denny Hoskins, R-Warrensburg, would require the public be given 30 days to comment on any proposed public health restrictions on businesses before a local government can impose them.
  • SB 21, sponsored by Koenig, would create a tax credit for business owners forced to close during a state of emergency, prohibit county health boards from requiring persons in quarantine isolate from members of the same physical household and bar hospitals from restricting the visitation if requested by a pregnant or new mother.
  • SB 56, introduced by Sen. Cindy O’Laughlin, R-Shelbina, seeks to strip county health boards of the power to impose restrictions and give that authority to elected councils and commissions.
  • SB 31, sponsored by Cierpiot, would require local government councils and commissions to extend or end any emergency declared by public health officials after 30 days.
  • SB 67 and SB 68, both filed by Rep. Rick Brattin, R-Harrisonville, would prohibit state or local officials from “governing the number of people gathering or residing on private residential property during a declared state of emergency” and “enacting, adopting, maintaining, or enforcing measures that would restrict, directly or indirectly, the free exercise of religion.