Missouri Senate delays debate on business incentives

Friday, September 9, 2011

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- With dissension mounting over a proposed overhaul of Missouri's business incentives, the Missouri Senate finally found something that most of its members could agree on: taking a break.

The Senate scuttled a scheduled debate Thursday on legislation revamping state tax credits, postponing the discussion until Tuesday so lawmakers could spend an extended weekend studying the latest, 268-page version of the bill at the center of a special legislative session.

"It's time to be contemplative," said Sen. Luann Ridgeway, of Smithville, one of several Republican lawmakers who had expressed uneasiness about both the quick pace of the special session and the particular details of proposed incentives for international trade at the St. Louis airport.

A Senate committee had met late into Wednesday night to endorse legislation scaling back some existing tax credits while authorizing new incentives for international trade, computerized data centers, scientific and high-tech industries and major amateur sporting events. Senate President Pro Tem Rob Mayer, who took control of the legislation this week, had planned introduce yet another updated version Thursday morning.

But when majority Republicans emerged from a closed-door meeting Thursday, Mayer announced the debate was being postponed to give senators more time to review the legislation.

"A bill of this importance and magnitude needs the attention of each member of the body," Mayer said.

The delay also will give senators a chance to review a requested Department of Economic Development analysis on the projected costs and benefits of a proposal offering up to $360 million in tax credits to promote international cargo trade at the St. Louis airport. The so-called "China hub" or "aerotropolis" is one of the focal points of the session -- and one of its more contentious proposals.

Republican Sen. Jason Crowell, who has threatened to filibuster the legislation, released a column later Thursday dubbing the proposal "Error-tropolis" and describing it as "developer welfare" -- not economic growth. Crowell said he was pleased by the delay in debate.

"We're struggling to get through this, and I appreciate taking a deep breath, taking a pause and letting us try to work through that," said Crowell, of Cape Girardeau.

The latest version of the legislation makes several changes intended to appease critics. For example, it reduces the amount of land that applicants must own to qualify for tax breaks for building warehouses to handle international cargo in attempt to address concerns that only a few individuals or businesses could qualify.

And instead of giving St. Louis city or county officials a role in determining which properties qualify for the tax breaks, it sends applications directly to the state Department of Economic Development.

Mayer's latest version also backs off a plan to immediately eliminate an income-tax credit for low-income senior citizens and disabled people who live in rented housing -- a proposal that had been criticized by advocacy groups and some lawmakers. The tax-credit repeal had been projected to save the state $855 million over 15 years, helping free up money to create new incentives for businesses.

Mayer's latest draft would phase out the tax credit over the next four years and make it subject to legislative approval through the state budget process.

It's unclear, however, whether those changes will be sufficient to rally support for the bill.

Sen. Rob Schaaf, a physician, complained about the postponed debate and compared the tax incentive legislation to an elderly patient with a tumor who is likely to die but whose family nonetheless opts for additional chemotherapy to extend the person's life a few more days.

"The tumor here is aerotropolis, and I believe the chemotherapy we're doing is costing us about $25,000 a day -- to keep this alive a few more days," the St. Joseph Republican said, referring to one estimate of how much it costs daily for the Legislature to be in session.

The Senate's chief financial officer, Randy Crawford, said it costs the a little over $7,700 a day for the Senate to be in a special session.

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