Special session begins for Missouri legislators and top Republicans disagree on key points
Updated 7:45 p.m. May 22 with number of bills filed Monday – On the eve of his first legislative special session, Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens and his allied nonprofit group are attacking one of the pivotal legislators needed to win approval of the governor’s favored bill.
The nonprofit group is called A New Missouri and can collect unlimited donations from unidentified donors. It is targeting state Sen. Doug Libla, a Republican whose southeast Missouri district includes the now-closed aluminum smelting plant that Greitens hopes to reopen, along with a possible steel mill.
Libla says he supports the projects. But the senator questions some provisions in the expected special-session bill that he says could reduce state oversight over Ameren, which provides electricity to much of eastern Missouri.
“This could lead to unnecessary rate increases, and absolutely has nothing to do with reopening the smelter or a steel mill in New Madrid,” Libla said.
Greitens, also a Republican, held four rallies Saturday within Libla’s district, including one at the site of the aluminum-smelting plant long known as Noranda. Greitens contends that his focus is on creating more jobs in southeast Missouri, which was hit hard by the closing of the Noranda plant 15 months ago. For decades, Noranda was the region's largest non-agricultural employer.
The bill in question would allow the state’s Public Service Commission to negotiate with Ameren for lower utility rates for the smelting plant and the steel mill. Republican state Rep. Don Rone of Portageville is the chief sponsor of the legislation. He praises Greitens’ support.
“He is fulfilling a promise that he made, when he first ran, that he’s a jobs governor and jobs are the main thing that he’s looking at,” Rone said. “And we just could not be happier.”
Rone has been critical of Libla, whom he referred to as “King Libla’’ during a speech last week on the floor of the state House. Libla and Republican Sen. Gary Romine of Farmington are sponsoring the new Noranda bill in the Senate, which is one of three versions in that chamber on top of the five filed in the House.
The special session was called because the General Assembly failed to pass Rone’s proposed legislation dealing with the lower rates. The House overwhelmingly supported the idea, attached as an amendment on another bill. But the bill died in the Senate during the final hours of the regular session.
Greitens featured in robo-call against Libla
Greitens senior adviser Austin Chambers, who is paid by A New Missouri, confirmed Friday that the governor and his nonprofit group are accusing Libla of failing to support new jobs in his district.
“A New Missouri is running advertisements and encouraging people to get involved to support more jobs and higher pay for the people of Southeast Missouri,” Chambers said.
The nonprofit group also is paying for a phone-bank operation underway with a recorded message from the governor that criticizes the state senator. One of the calls went to Libla’s home.
The senator said he won’t be influenced by the attacks, and will not budge from his views. “I just do what I think is right,’’ Libla said. “I’m not into character assassination.”
Libla, who has been in office five years, emphasized that he is a retired businessman – not a “career politician,’’ as Greitens has asserted.
“My brother and I, we have created hundreds of jobs,’’ Libla said.
Ameren at center of debate
Libla blames Ameren, that he says long has sought “to diminish the scrutiny of the PSC’’ and reduce government oversight.
“They are monopolies and have no competition,” the senator said. “They are just trying to pad the wallets of executives and stockholders at the expense of ratepayers.”
State Sen. Rob Schaaf, a Republican from St. Joseph, Mo., contends that Greitens' real aim is to help Ameren. Over the weekend, Schaaf posted on Twitter a list of donations -- totalling more than $800,000 -- that current Missouri legislators have received from Ameren over the past 20 years. Greitens' campaign for governor collected at least $100,000 in 2016. Schaaf is questioning whether Ameren also gave to A New Missouri, since such donations do not have to be publicly disclosed.
Greitens and Chambers have declined various times to identify any donors to A New Missouri, saying only the donors are supporters of the governor's agenda.
Ignoring such jabs, a top Ameren official focused solely on the special-session legislation, and the quest to reopen Noranda, in response to a written query from St. Louis Public Radio.
The utility said that it would be up to the PSC “to decide and approve any special rates after considering the interest of these companies and all of our other customers.”
“Ideally, when a new large industrial customer comes onto the electric system it results in more total energy load which could reduce rates for other customers,” said the statement, attributed to Warren Wood, vice president of external affairs and communications for Ameren Missouri.
“We support the re-opening of the aluminum smelter and the potential opening of a new steel smelter in southeast Missouri,” Wood said. “If these companies are able to be successful they would provide an enormous economic development and jobs benefit to the state.”