Missouri lawmakers returned to the Capitol in Jefferson City on January 6th with challenges posed by an ongoing pandemic. The Missouri legislative session began at noon last Wednesday with a new General Assembly; eleven newly-elected Senators and six returning Senators were sworn into office. In the house, 161 Representatives took the oath of office.
With COVID-19 numbers continuing to rise, it appears 2021 may be another historic year similar to 2020, in which Missouri had wave upon wave of crisis hitting the state and putting stress on the state and local governments, the community and Missouri families. So far, the virus has sickened more than 400,000 Missourians and killed 6,000 of our neighbors. Since the beginning of the pandemic, some forty percent of Missourians have lost income due to COVID-19 and a massive increase in food and housing insecurity has been created in the state.
There will be many challenges in 2021 as current eviction moratoriums are set to expire at the end of January and food pantries are running low on food to help struggling families. This is why in 2021 your advocacy is even more crucial to help us win on food and shelter policy decisions, second chances for those formerly incarcerated, juvenile justice, smart sentencing, and ending the criminalization of People Living with HIV in the 101st General Assembly.
In 2020, Empower Missouri had many victories during the legislative session, which included securing additional benefits to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), securing rental assistance funds in the federal relief bills and making progress toward ending HIV stigma and changing Missouri’s outdated, cruel, and medically inaccurate HIV-specific criminal codes. But, we also fell short in gaining traction on some of our core policy initiatives. In 2021, Empower Missouri pledges to continue to advocate for criminal justice and HIV criminalization reform, and push for policies to help the hungry and people struggling to afford rent and pay bills.
Starting today, our top priorities for the legislative session include several reforms that will help Missourians fighting to make ends meet during the pandemic. Millions of Missouri workers have filed for unemployment in the last year, and hundreds of thousands of individuals are still out of work. SNAP benefits make ends meet each month. The safety net is there for that purpose– to help families who are struggling. This is NOT the year that Missouri legislators should pass any new requirements, hurdles or roadblocks that prevent people from easily accessing help through safety net programs. They should not pass bills like SB 138 or HB 217, which are designed to limit access to necessary nutrition assistance programs.
We’ve been told that the best way to protect ourselves and our neighbors from COVID-19 is to wash our hands and stay home. Missouri should make sure everyone in our state can practice these life saving measures. Governor Parson should use his powers under the State of Emergency to issue a statewide eviction and utility shut off moratorium effective immediately. The state legislature should ensure that all coronavirus response dollars are distributed in a quick and equitable process so struggling Missouri families can pay their rent / mortgages and put food on their tables.
But while we are fighting for these basic needs to be met, we also must stay focused on key events from last year, such as the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and the resulting protests bringing calls for police accountability. Missouri legislators should not lose sight of the importance of making criminal justice reforms in 2021. They should pass a comprehensive policing reform bill that addresses things like choke holds, no-knock warrants, racial profiling, and de-escalation training.
It is vital that we have a strong presence at hearings, during floor debate and on social media. 2021 may be another challenging year for us, but we still have the ability to push for change by helping to usher in compassionate and evidence-based public policy.
We each need to do our part to make it so. We are glad to be on this journey with you.