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Missouri Legislature passes economic development bill; other touchy measures die

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 15, 2009 - The Missouri Legislature ended its 2009 session much as it began almost five months ago, with Gov. Jay Nixon's economic development bill taking center stage -- and his quest to expand health care for the poor fading into the shadows.

During Friday's final frenzy of votes, the state Senate and House each OKed the massive economic development bill, ending a multi-month Senate stalemate that had revolved around the rising use of state historic tax credits to bolster redevelopment in St. Louis and other older urban areas.

State Sen. Jeff Smith, D-St. Louis, was among those in the Senate who blocked efforts to  curtail the use of the historic credits, which critics contended favor wealthy developers. A new ceiling of $140 million a year, with an exemption for projects using $1.1 million in credits or less, "means all the rehabbing in St. Louis and in neighborhoods like Shaw, can continue unfettered,'' Smith said Friday.

But the House succeeded in killing a plan pushed by Nixon, the Missouri Hospital Association, several business groups and state Senate leaders -- notably state Sen. Tom Dempsey, R-St. Charles -- that would have expanded the state's Medicaid rolls to include another 35,000 low-income, working people without using state tax dollars.

The hospital association had agreed to increase its members' payments to the state, to obtain almost $100 million in additional federal money. House critics, including state Rep. John Diehl, R-Town and Country, called the plan "welfare'' that could cost the state money in future years. Supporters, including Catholic Charities, said it would have covered some of the hospitals' uncompensated costs to treat the rising number of low-income uninsured who showed up in emergency rooms.

After several earlier House rejections, the Senate launched a last-ditch effort Friday that involved attaching the plan to another health-care bill. Despite the Senate's 30-4 vote, the maneuver went nowhere when the House declined to take up the measure.

Instead, during the session's final hours, the House killed time with lower-priority items, introductions of former legislators and relatives in the stands, and group photos. The House ended up adjourning 10 minutes before the 6 p.m. deadline, a rare action.

The Senate, for its part, killed off several controversial measures approved earlier by the House. They included an anti-abortion bill that would have created a new crime of coercing an abortion, and a ballot proposal that would have asked Missouri voters in 2010 to make changes in the state's nonpartisan judicial-selection process.

Still, House Speaker Ron Richard, Senate President Pro Tem Charlie Shields and Nixon each proclaimed the session a success during their separate post-session news conferences, and avoided any pointed jabs over their differences on health care and other matters.

Nixon indicated that he was unlikely to call a special session to deal with health care or any other favored issue that failed to win legislative approval. "It's time for lawmakers to go home and hear from their constituents,'' Nixon said.

The governor and the GOP legislative leaders all emphasized their common victory in crafting an economic-development package that all contended would create jobs, retrain those out of work and encourage businesses to expand in Missouri or move to the state.

"The No. 1 thing I wanted to get done, got done,'' Nixon said, referring to the economic development bill.

Among other things, the version of the bill headed to his desk would:

- Raise the cap on the "Quality Jobs" tax credit up to $80 million. That credit provides incentives to companies that provide ertain wages and benefits.

- Eliminate the state's franchise tax for about 16,000 small businesses in the state, a tax cut of almost $15 million a year.

- Impose a $10 million "soft" cap on tax credits divvied out by the Missouri Development Finance Board. That cap can be boosted up to $25 million with the consent of the directors of the Department of Revenue, the Department of Economic Development and the Office of Administration.

- Expand a program providing pre-employment job training.

OTHER LEGISLATIVE ACTIONS

Nixon, Richard and Shields also cited education bills that fully fund the state-aid formula for public elementary and secondary schools, and provide more funding for state community colleges, four-year colleges and universities. The higher-education money comes with an agreement that the schools won't raise tuition for the coming year.

Other approved bills headed toward the governor's desk -- and praised by Nixon or Lt. Peter Kinder -- include:

- Omnibus bills that make sought-after, generally non-controversial changes in government operations, education and the courts;

- A bill ending the state's long-standing tradition of awarding contracts for operation of the state's quasi-private offices that handle drivers licenses and vehicle plates -- known as fee offices -- to allies of whoever is governor. Nixon pushed the bill, which requires that all the contracts go out for bid.

- A $1.2 billion spending bill involving federal stimulus money. The projects slated to get the money include $12 million in one-time aid to Metro, the St. Louis area's financially troubled transit agency; $12 million to help set up a U.S./China export hub at Lambert St. Louis International Airport; and $31 million for new facilities at the Ellis Fischel Cancer Center in Columbia, Mo.

For all the talk of consensus -- when pressed by reporters -- Nixon, Richard and Shields did acknowledge that the health-care debate will likely re-emerge for the 2010 legislative session, if not earlier.

The governor lamented the loss of the health-care plan to expand coverage for 35,000 low-income working adults, saying the rising number of uninsured was prompting higher insurance premiums for everyone else. He said it was too soon say whether the Hospital Association would stick by its offer to pay higher fees to the state, to obtain more federal dollars.

Nixon also said he was sorry about the lack of legislative action on a proposal to require insurers to cover treatment for autistic children. He made only an indirect reference Friday to his earlier disappointment, when the House acted early in the session to reject another of Nixon's health-care proposals that would have expanded the federal State Children's Health Insurance Program to include 20,000 more uninsured children.

Richard, R-Joplin, said the House has "a different vision for health care'' which it may address next session. Other House legislators took to his mike to reaffirm their belief that the state government should only provide financial help to people who are deemed uninsurable, such as for pre-existing conditions, and not for those who can't afford to buy coverage.

As for the Senate, Shields, R-St. Joseph, indicated that it remained on Nixon's side when it comes to revisiting the 2005 Medicaid cuts that cut or eliminated coverage for about 300,000 Missourians. Without getting into specifics, Shields said, "The Missouri Senate remains committed to providing coverage... We will address it in the future."

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.
Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.

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