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House and Senate pass tax credits for Ford, Nixon will sign bill in Kansas City

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 14, 2010 - Even filibusters must come to an end. And so it was in the state Senate, where -- after 20 hours -- four Senate lawmakers finally ended their filibuster this morning, prompting the state Senate to swiftly pass a package providing for tax breaks for Ford Motor Co. and partially paying for the aid by changing the state workers' pension system.

The plan calls for $150 million in incentives over 10 years for Ford Motor Co. and its suppliers. New state workers will pay 4 percent of their pay into the state retirement system; current workers pay in nothing.

The Senate action sent the matter back to the state House, which had earlier approved the measures.

By noon, the House also had OKed the final versions of the Ford and pension bills.

"Everything should go to the governor this afternoon,'' said Farrah Fite, spokeswoman for Senate President Pro Tem Charlie Shields, R-St. Joseph.

Gov. Jay Nixon -- who had called the Legislature into special session to deal with the Ford and pension issues -- announced later today that he plans to travel to Kansas City on Thursday to sign the Ford bill into law. Nixon will conduct the ceremony in the office of Local 249 of the United Auto Workers, which represent the Ford employees.

The aim of the bill is to persuade Ford to retain and expand its Claycomo plant near Kansas City, thus protecting thousands of jobs.

The Missouri Chamber of Commerce eagerly announced its approval.

"We are pleased that lawmakers are allowing Missouri to put its best effort forward to save critical jobs connected to the auto manufacturing industry. Our state is one step closer to securing these specific 4,000 jobs in Claycomo, in addition to the thousands of jobs all over Missouri that support this plant and others like it,” said Daniel P. Mehan, Missouri Chamber president and CEO.

“We have many members among the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry that this legislation impacts, from our large auto manufacturers to the numerous auto manufacturing suppliers across the state that will see benefit from lawmakers’ efforts,” Mehan added.

The opposing senators, all conservative Republicans, commanded the Senate floor throughout Tuesday night. The result was one of the chamber's longest filibusters ever.

But the end was anti-climactic. The leader of the pack -- state Sen. Chuck Purgason, R-Caulfield and a candidate for the U.S. Senate in the Aug. 3 primary -- simply walked off the floor shortly before 9 a.m.

The Senate swiftly scrambled, with a final vote taken before 9:30 a.m. The tally in favor of the bill: 20-7.

Throughout Tuesday night and this morning, Purgason got periodic assistance from three GOP allies.

One of them, Sen. Jack Goodman, R-Mt. Vernon, called the Ford aid "crap." He said it amounted to a "shakedown" of the state at a time when Missouri's budget faced a deficit of $600 million.

Goodman is a candidate for the GOP nomination for Congress in Missouri's 7th District in southwest Missouri.; Also helping out: Sen. Matt Bartle, R-Lee's Summit, who tied up the Senate's discussion Tuesday night to give Purgason a chance to eat and go for a "potty break."

"People don't send us their tax money to bet on private business activities," Bartle said. "What company is going to be next? Let's not be afraid to let people fail."

Another Purgason ally -- state Sen. Brad Lager, R-Savannah -- also provided him some floor relief during the night.

Filibuster Starts with Tough Talk, Ends with Silence

Purgason had launched the filibuster shortly after the Senate convened Tuesday at noon. He'd blocked the Ford bill last week by bottling it up in a Senate committee he had headed. Shields ousted Purgason as chairman on Monday, in order to get the bill back onto the floor.

At about 8 p.m. Tuesday night, Purgason was reading aloud emails that had been sent to him by supporters. Many of them had heard the filibuster on the audio broadcast on the Senate's internet site.

"May God grant you the endurance to see this thing through," read one e-mail.

But by this morning, Purgason and his allies had shifted their floor talk to a philosophical discussion of state tax policy. He then opted to call it quits, saying nothing as he walked off the floor.

The subsequent brief delay in the Senate vote, said Fite, was caused by senators who'd left the Capitol to take showers and change clothes. At Shields' behest, they quickly returned. 

On June 24, Nixon called the lawmakers into special session to pass the Ford incentives and to save state workers' pension costs by requiring newly hired workers to stay on the job longer to get benefits and to contribute 4 percent of their income to their retirement. Nixon and legislative leaders had hoped to wrap up the session's work on Wednesday.

The filibuster threatened to throw a wrench into that schedule.

"We are going to be here until Thursday," initially predicted Rep. Tim Flook, R-Liberty and chairman of the House Job Creation and Economic Development Committee that had approved the Ford bill.

Flook said opponents of the economic development bill were "trying to score points in primaries."

The House convened at 6 p.m. Tuesday, recessed and then came back at 9 p.m. to take up the pension changes made by the Senate. The House took up a motion to refuse to accept the Senate's version of the pension overhaul.

The differences between the pension bills were being worked out today.

There is an understanding among some senators that the economic development package for Ford will not be approved unless the pension overhaul is approved. And the House does not want the pension reductions without an agreement on the subsidy designed to help the automaker's plant near Kansas City.

The Senate filibuster began with Purgason reading information about what led to the Boston Tea Party as most of the members of the Senate abandoned the floor and holed up in their offices. A Republican from Caulfield, Purgason had tried to block the bill at the beginning of the special session when he refused to bring it up in the committee he chaired. Senate President Pro Tem Charlie Shields, R-St. Joseph, removed Purgason from the committee in hopes of getting the bill moving again.

Earlier Tuesday, the Senate Governmental Accountability and Fiscal Oversight Committee, with Shields acting as its new chairman, voted 6-1 to send the Ford bill to the Senate floor. When the bill came up, Purgason began debating its sponsor, Sen. Luann Ridgeway, R-Smithville.

Supporters Say Ford Aid Crucial to Stem Job Losses

Ridgeway said the bill was needed to "stop the bleeding" of Missouri losing jobs to other states. Purgason said Missouri had tried to offer incentives to automakers before without result. He pointed out that Chrysler left its plant in Fenton and Ford moved out of a facility in Hazelwood despite subsidies the state offered them to preserve jobs.

The bill will provide up to $150 million over a 10-year period to an auto manufacturer and its suppliers. The companies would be able to retain withholding taxes that would otherwise be sent to the state in return for investing in new or retained jobs at their plants.

Ford currently manufacturers F-150 trucks and the SUV Escape model at the Claycomo plant with an annual payroll of $220 million. Ford has given notice that the Escape line will be discontinued there in the fall of 2011, according to union officials.

The state is offering incentives in hopes of encouraging Ford to build a new vehicle there. Other states such as Kentucky, Ohio and Michigan are said to be offering incentives as well.

Ridgeway said Ford had suppliers in all but one of Missouri's counties.

"This impacts us statewide not just in the greater Kansas City area," Ridgeway said.

Purgason said for business to be successful in Missouri, taxes should be lowered. He said the state needed to become a "right-to-work" state, which would mean a worker could not be compelled to support a union that has a collective bargaining agreement with the worker's employer.

"Kentucky is a right-to-work state and that's why Ford's going there," Purgason said.

Under an amendment Shields sought to attach to the bill, the Ford subsidies could not become law until the separate bill overhauling the state workers' pension system goes into effect.

"When we offer economic incentives, we ought to have a way to pay for them," Shields said. He said the changes would save the state about $660 million over 10 years.

But before the Senate could vote on Shields' amendment, Purgason took over the Senate floor. At one point, Purgason asked a colleague how to pronounce "Faneuil Hall," the seat of government in Boston where the fires of the Revolution were stoked. Later, Purgason asked for his office to bring him a book about the settlement of Missouri, and he began reading from it.

Purgason is running against U.S. Rep. Roy Blunt for the GOP nomination Aug. 3 to succeed Sen. Christopher "Kit" Bond, R-Mo., who is retiring.

Senate rules allow a member to monopolize debate. A majority of the Senate could suspend its rules to force a vote, a rarely used remedy. Usually while its patience is tested, the majority waits for the filibuster to run out of gas.

This morning, Purgason's finally did.

Terry Ganey, a freelance writer in Columbia, has long covered state government.

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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