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Missouri House adds rules to allow virtual feedback on bills

The Missouri state House on Tuesday adopted new rules to allow the public to weigh in on proposed bills virtually in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

The new rule is one of several approved by the Republican-led House as lawmakers begin their annual session under the cloud of the pandemic.

House members voted down a proposal to follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state health department recommendations during public health emergencies, which would mean lawmakers would be required to wear face masks and practice social distancing. Face masks are currently optional for lawmakers.

Many other changes to how the House does business, mostly pitched by Democrats, were shot down.

Here’s a rundown on changes and proposed changes:

COVID-19

The House now allow members of the public to testify virtually, an option meant to accommodate those concerned about spreading or catching COVID-19 at the Capitol. But video or telephone testimony will only be offered if approved in advance by committees. The caveat raised bipartisan concerns about limits on speech and the possibility that committees might vote against virtual feedback depending on whether lawmakers agree with the hopeful testifier’s opinions. The House voted against tweaks to the rule pitched by Democrats, including a requirement that the option for virtual testimony must be offered or that a committee must choose whether to allow it in all cases for the duration of session.

Ethics

The House passed a change that allows the chamber to investigate ethics complaints against members for alleged misconduct that occurred before they became lawmakers. The move enables the House Ethics Committee to look into claims of child abuse and child sex abuse against Republican Rep. Rick Roeber, who was elected in November to represent Lee’s Summit. Roeber’s adult children in a letter to House leadership wrote that he sexually and physically abused them when they were young. Republican House Speaker Rob Vescovo and other House leaders in a joint statement have said they take the allegations against Roeber “very seriously” and are not allowing him to join the Republican caucus.

Republican Rep. Shane Roden, of Cedar Hill, also proposed fining censured lawmakers all but $1 of their annual wages unless they resign. The idea comes after the House Ethics Committee recommended the chamber censure, which means officially denounce, St. Louis Democratic Rep. Wiley Price for lying while under investigation for allegedly having sex with an intern last year and then threatening staffers to keep quiet about it. Price hasn’t resigned. He denied to investigators that he had sex with the intern. Roden said fining censured lawmakers could help recoup costs associated with mandatory investigations of sexual harassment claims. Some Democrats said the fines would be too draconian and would have a disproportionate impact on poorer lawmakers facing censure. Roden ultimately withdrew his amendment.

Equal rights

The House voted against Democratic proposals to ban discrimination against people with disabilities and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender House employees. A rule against referring to lawmakers as either ladies or gentlemen, the current custom, and instead calling all members “representatives” also failed.

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