Special Session
6:35 am
Fri October 28, 2011

Wrapping up Missouri's 2011 special legislative session

A very contentious special legislative session ended with a whimper in Jefferson City this week.  It was dominated by seven weeks of head-butting over a wide-ranging tax credit bill that in the end boiled down to a long-running battle between the Missouri House and Senate over whether tax credits should have expiration dates.  St. Louis Public Radio’s Marshall Griffin takes a closer look at what happened.

(Dis)agreement

Back In late July, House and Senate leaders flew around the state, holding press conferences to announce that an agreement had been reached on a tax credit bill that included the Aerotropolis proposal to turn Lambert Airport in St. Louis into an international air cargo hub.  But once the session began in September, some fiscally conservative senators announced that they had not been consulted on the deal.  One of them, Republican Jason Crowell of Cape Girardeau, immediately began a move to block its passage.

“But right now, this is just special interest stuff…right now, I invite you once again, tell me how many jobs this is going to create,” Crowell said. “What do you say it’s going to create? Zero.”

President Pro-tem Rob Mayer and other Senate leaders slashed the warehouse incentives from the Aerotropolis proposal in order to bring Crowell on board and get the bill passed.  House leaders opposed that move, however.

Political Ping-Pong

They then made changes of their own that the Senate objected to,  namely, removing expiration dates, or sunsets, on the state’s two most expensive tax credit programs:  low-income housing and historic preservation. 

The House passed their version and sent it back to the Senate, which rejected it and sent it back to the House, which voted to appoint conference committee negotiators and then sent back to the Senate again.  Mayer responded to that bit of legislative Ping-Pong by ending the special session.

“We’re not reining in tax credits, but we continue to issue more and create a greater obligation to the state…at some point there needs to be reform, they need to be reined in…certainly, a seven-year sunset is not an unreasonable proposal,” Mayer said.

But try telling that to House Speaker Steven Tilley.  He says tax credits create jobs, and for that reason they should not have sunsets tacked onto them.

“If you put people to work, they pay more taxes (and) the revenue within the state coffers go up…if you eliminated every incentive that the state had, that wouldn’t change the fact that Kansas, Arkansas (and) Iowa would have incentive programs,” Tilley said.

The ripple effect of a failed bill

The failure to pass an economic development bill also resulted in other bills not surviving the special session, including, once again, the St. Louis Police local control bill.  It had earlier died during the regular session when lawmakers again clashed over tax credits.

The most surprising side effect, though, was the death of the bill to move the state’s presidential primary from February to March.  After passing the House, a group of senators held it up, too – and then floated an alternate bill to dump the primary in favor of caucuses, which also failed.  Marvin Overby is a political science professor at the University of Missouri in Columbia.  He says the failure to resolve the presidential primary issue could be more embarrassing than deadlocking on tax credits.

“The Republican leadership was unable to sort of get a reasonable bill passed," Overby said. "I guess now we’re going to have a primary that doesn’t count, and we’re going to have some sort of caucus system that does count…that again just looks incompetent.”

And Overby says the GOP’s failure may be the Democrats’ gain.

Who's to blame?

“Probably Governor Nixon looks better in comparison, although it’s not so much what he did, it’s just that he doesn’t have his fingerprints as much on the failure of this legislative session,” Overby said.

But House Majority Floor Leader Tim Jones says the governor deserves a share of the blame for a mostly failed session.

“The governor seems to be the closest to the senators and the most aware of what happens in that body, " Overby said. "I wonder how well the governor vetted the bill with Senator Mayer and the rest of the Senate leadership and talked about, 'okay, who’s going to have issues with this bill.'”

But a spokesman for the governor says it was the inability of the House and Senate to resolve their differences that deprived the state of additional economic development tools.  Only two bills passed during the special session:  the “Facebook Fix” and a funding mechanism for creating high tech and life sciences jobs, and both were signed by Governor Nixon. 

Lawmakers are scheduled to return to Jefferson City in just over two months, and so far there’s no indication they’ll be able to agree on tax credits during next year’s regular session, either.