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Government, Politics & Issues

Tax credits for Lambert development, local control of St. Louis police die as Missouri legislature

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 14, 2011 - JEFFERSON CITY - Compromise was the buzzword of this year's legislative session. Missouri lawmakers always talked about it, and occasionally reached it. But much of the time, they did not.

That was particularly true of the top issues that died during the final hours: tax credits for development of Lambert airport, local control of St. Louis police, funding for nuclear power construction and new rules for initiative petitions.

The state House and Senate each approved huge economic development packages that revamped the state's tax credit programs. Each plan included $360 million in tax credits aimed at encouraging China to locate a cargo hub at Lambert St. Louis International Airport.

Each chamber killed off the other's bill.

The state House approved a bill granting the city of St. Louis local control of its police department. The Senate killed it.

The two chambers also dueled over a proposal to help finance a new nuclear plant and over a bill to stiffen the state's requirements for initiative-petition drives. The Senate killed both.

The notable exceptions, where the chambers did work together, were social issues like guns and abortion. The House and Senate seemed to try to outdo each other in expanding the rights to carry guns -- even in the state Capitol -- while imposing further restrictions on women seeking abortions.

Otherwise, tensions between chambers were high, even though both are controlled by Repubicans. At one point during the final day, House Majority Leader Tim Jones, R-Eureka, angrily Tweeted that his chamber "continues to pass good government bills," while the Missouri Senate's "legislative terrorists continue to kill them."

Senate President Pro Tem Rob Mayer, R-Dexter, was more measured after Friday's adjournment, but told reporters that the House was to blame for the demise of the economic development package.

House leaders, he said, "were not supportive of a great deal of tax credit reform."

State House Speaker Steve Tilley, R-Dexter, countered by asserting that there are "a few senators that run the show over there beyond the will of the entire body."

That jab appeared to be particularly directed at state Sen. Jason Crowell , R-Cape Girardeau, who was accused by Democrats and Republicans as being the chief reason the tax-credit proposals and local control died after days of frenzied negotiations.

State Rep. Jamilah Nasheed, D-St. Louis -- who was the chief sponsor of the local control measure -- contended that Crowell was behind the Senate's decision to link both measures as part of his longstanding effort to revamp the state's tax-credit system.

"He should have been taken down a long time ago," a furious Nasheed said.

Crowell replied that Nasheed should redirect her ire at House Republican leaders. "In my belief, the House leaders stood with developers, and the Senate stood with taxpayers,'' Crowell said.

Mayer swiftly raised the prospect of a special session later this year so that both sides could regroup on economic development issues. "I have had discussions with the governor today and throughout the week,'' he said, adding that Nixon "certainly didn't close the door."

Tilley said he sat down with Nixon's chief of staff on Friday to discuss the idea of such a special session, but was told the governor would call one only if "there was a consensus among the two bodies."

Nixon, a Democrat, sounded downright pessimistic. "We're not going to call legislators into special session to have a taxpayer-funded debating society," the governor said at a post-session news conference. "I mean, we come in to get things done."

Redistricting Riled Republican Ranks

The House and Senate battles were striking because Republicans, as a result of the 2010 elections, held historic majorities in both chambers: 106 out of 163 members of the House, and 26 out of 34 senators.

Mayer blamed the discord largely on the combative redistricting process that consumed weeks of the five-month session. Although both chambers had the same goal -- protecting six Republican districts and killing off one of the three Democratic seats -- House and Senate Republicans fought bitterly over how the new boundary lines should be drawn.

"From that point on, the relationship with the House had worsened,'' Mayer said. "Redistricting certainly created a lot of acrimony."

Tilley said at his post-session news conference that he thought "acrimony" was a bit strong.

"I think we still get along," the speaker said. "I think it's a function of how the Senate operates. ... In the Missouri Senate, they let one or two people stand up or filibuster something or if they just say they'll filibuster something they can't get it done. But that's their process."

In any case, Tilley added, "We're happy with what we were able to accomplish this year. Would we have liked to have gotten that additional economic development bill? Sure. But we're pretty pleased" with what was accomplished.

House and Senate leaders acknowledge that they have different philosophical views of the state's complicated and crowded tax credit programs, which currently cost Missouri more than $500 million a year. Crowell, Mayer -- and Nixon -- say the financial costs are too high, and that the programs need to be trimmed and targeted. In the House, Tilley and Jones say the credits have helped create jobs and finance construction and renovations that otherwise wouldn't have come about.

Guns and abortion

The House and Senate did find fertile ground when it came to social issues like guns and abortion. After significant haggling and amending, both chambers overwhelmingly approved a measure that expands the rights to carry guns -- even in the state Capitol -- and lowers the minimum age to 21 for people who can obtain permits to carry concealed weapons.

The Senate and House also agreed to pass identical bills that impose further restrictions on women seeking abortion, by making it more difficult to obtain the procedure after 20 weeks of pregnancy. Except in cases of emergency, a physician must determine that the fetus is not viable. And two doctors must certify that the woman's life is endangered or that she risks permanent damage to a major bodily function because of the pregnancy.

Mayer said that the unusual decision to send two identical anti-abortion bills to the governor instead of one was intended in part as a conciliatory gesture to House Minority Leader Jones, who sponsored his chamber's bill.

The House and Senate also agreed on a proposed constitutional amendment, which will appear on the 2012 ballot, that asks Missouri voters to require that government-issued photo IDs be shown in future elections before people can cast ballots.

The state Republican Party lauded the session's achievements. "We commend the Missouri General Assembly for an incredibly productive and historic session," said party executive director Lloyd Smith. "Republicans, who hold overwhelming majorities in both chambers, showed tremendous leadership and a willingness to reach across the aisle, engaging in a healthy debate over the issues that matter most to Missourians. Thanks to their leadership, Missourians will benefit from the passage of common-sense legislation to create jobs, balance the budget without a tax increase, secure our elections, and protect the unborn, among many other things. We are especially proud that Republicans and Democrats set aside their differences and joined together to override a gubernatorial veto of a redistricting proposal for the first time in state history."

The Democratic minority was generally critical of the GOP's actions and attitude. "For House Republicans, job creation means reducing unemployment benefits, making it easier for bad employers to illegally discriminate and cutting taxes for large corporations to reduce state funding for public schools and other vital needs," said House Minority Leader Mike Talboy, D-Kansas City. "To House Democrats, job creation means providing opportunities for Missourians to support their families at a fair wage. Attacking Missouri workers will not bring economic prosperity."

Governor stayed out of disputes

Amid the sparring, Nixon -- as the state's top Democrat -- chose to work often below the radar and behind the scenes. He generally refused to take public stands on bills until the legislation had landed on his desk.

Since taking office in 2009, Nixon has sought to avoid being put in the political box that plagued the last Democratic governor, Bob Holden, who also faced a GOP-controlled General Assembly.

At Friday's post-session news conference, for example, the governor avoided taking any partisan shots. Nixon long has taken pains to avoid any public disputes with Republican legislative leaders, figuring that such battles would simply make it harder for him to achieve any sort of compromises.

This session, Nixon carefully picked his battles, wielding his political muscles most notably in four cases:

-- He led an effort to quickly craft a compromise bill after the General Assembly approved a bill that largely tossed out Proposition B, the voter-approved measure imposing more restrictions on dog breeders.

-- He forced a compromise on lawsuits against large agriculture and livestock operations by vetoing the first bill and then swifting signing an alternative measure.

-- He vetoed the congressional redistricting map but said little when fellow Democrats failed to block overrides in both chambers.

-- He vetoed a bill making it more difficult for whistleblowers and people claiming discrimination to sue employers, and did so at a high-profile event held in downtown St. Louis.

That last episode rankled the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry, which had sought the restrictions. But chamber chief executive Dan Mehan played down the disagreement on Friday, opting instead to highlight the governor's decision to sign a bill phasing out the state's franchise tax levied on businesses' assets.

Mehan said he also was disappointed by this session's failure to pass an economic development bill.

He was joined by Mike Jones, chief policy advisor to St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley and chairman of the regional China Hub Commission leading the effort to encourage China to locate the cargo transit hub at Lambert.

Jones had driven to the state Capitol on Friday in a last-ditch effort to rescue the proposed $360 million in tax credits, which would be used largely to encourage related warehouse development around the airport. While disappointed, Jones said he took heart in that the China Hub proposal was supported by the House and Senate. "We were not the issue," he said, " and we're well-positioned to get this passed'' if there is a special session.

That's not necessarily true of St. Louis' local control bill -- which saw city officials get tantalizingly close to achieving their dream of ending the state's 150-year supervision of the St. Louis police department.

Some supporters in both parties predict that there will now be an initiative-petition effort on the 2012 ballot that asks Missouri voters to consider the idea.

The state House had overwhelmingly approved local control, largely because Tilley sided with St. Louis area Democrats. But Mayer hinted that city officials may have misinterpreted the Senate's inital review of the issue. "The local control bill had never been a priority of the Senate body,'' Mayer said, adding that he had never "counted the votes'' to determine how strong its support might be.

But Sen. Kevin Engler, R-Farmington and the chief handler of the local-control bill in the Senate, viewed the issue's defeat as "a shame" and tied to the tensions between the two chambers. "It's collateral damage of not being able to talk to each other between the House and the Senate for weeks," Engler said.

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