Illegal immigration issue endangers ethanol mandate

Monday, May 8, 2006

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- It's been a bumpy ride to make Missouri one of five states to require gasoline be blended with ethanol -- a proposal supported by Republicans and Democrats, leaders in the House and Senate and Gov. Matt Blunt.

It took two tries to get the bill to the House floor, billboards supporting the amendment have been decried as "bigoted" by at least one national Arab group and now an amendment to punish ethanol producers if they hire illegal immigrants threatens to take down the entire bill.

The amendment -- the most recent hiccup in the ethanol debate -- was tacked on by Sen. Tim Green and would take away all state subsidies from ethanol producers that employ any undocumented workers.

Green, D-St. Louis, said companies getting money from the taxpayers should follow federal laws.

On its face, the amendment has little opposition and has been offered to other bills this year. But tacking it onto a bill that would require most gas sold in Missouri to be blended with ethanol has made it a problem.

The lead sponsors of the ethanol bill in the House and Senate -- Sen. John Cauthorn and Rep. Bob Behnen -- can't agree on whether to keep the amendment on the bill. And Thursday, the discussion about what to do during a conference committee between House and Senate negotiators prompted a blowup between Cauthorn and House General Counsel Don Lograsso.

The general counsel is appointed by the House speaker and is the body's top lawyer. Under Speaker Rod Jetton, Lograsso has become a major player in decisions by the House.

Throughout last week's conference committee, Lograsso advised Behnen as the Republican from Kirksville attempted to strip the undocumented worker amendment from the bill. The sometimes contentious session ended with Cauthorn, R-Mexico, approaching Lograsso and yelling that the opposition was threatening the entire ethanol bill.

Lograsso shouted back that Cauthorn shouldn't "ever curse at me" before the dispute was taken outside the committee room and into a hallway.

Directly at issue is the constitutional requirement that bills only deal with one subject and not extend to issues that aren't covered in a bill's title -- the ethanol bill's title is "renewable fuels."

Senate supporters and even some of the House negotiators say punishing companies that hire illegal immigrants to work for ethanol plants fits while Behnen and Rep. Peter Myers, R-Sikeston, said there is too high a chance that provision runs afoul of the constitution.

Behnen said keeping that provision on the bill "jeopardizes losing the entire thing" to a court challenge.

"There are a lot of people who don't necessarily like (the ethanol bill) and would like to find a way to delay it or get it thrown out," he said.

Cauthorn said one of the reasons to promote ethanol is its economic benefit for rural areas -- something that can't happen if workers from outside Missouri are hired.

"I don't want to drive by a local construction site and see somebody working there who's taking a job away from somebody in my community," he said.

Relations between the Republican House leaders and Republican Senate leaders have grown increasingly strained throughout the session.

The dispute is typified by a decision by House leaders to demand the Senate pass a controversial bill that could constrain state-funding for public universities before the House would approve plan to spend more $478 million from a potential sale of some of the Missouri Higher Education Loan Authority's assets. The sale has been a hallmark of Gov. Matt Blunt's legislative agenda.

Conference committees tend to be fluid sessions, and it's not uncommon for them to appear hopelessly deadlocked only to have a deal apparently come out of nowhere. But an attempt to change the illegal immigration amendment to lower the penalties and require that ethanol producers "knowingly" employ undocumented workers in order for them to be punished wasn't enough to appease at least two hold outs -- Behnen and Myers.

Rep. Martin Rucker, whose ethanol requirement was folded into the House's version, said he remains hopeful the legislation will pass but concerned that it is hung up by an illegal immigration issue.

"It's a little bit frustrating with all the work put in to get the bill done," Rucker, D-St. Joseph, said.

Lawmakers only have until 6 p.m. Friday to agree on what to do.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Capitol reporter Chris Blank covers Missouri government and politics for The Associated Press.

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