Mo. House panel advances business incentive bill

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — A pared back version of a business incentive bill cleared a Missouri House committee on Wednesday, paving the way for the full chamber to finally vote on a bill that has been at the heart of a month-long special session.

But the bill's advancement from the House Economic Development Committee did not come without controversy. Committee Chairwoman Anne Zerr did not allow any of 26 other committee members to offer any amendments to the bill, prompting one lawmaker to storm out of the room while angrily comparing the committee to the communist government in China.

Despite the displeasure about the committee's proceedings, members nonetheless voted 21-4 to advance the legislation. The bill would create new incentives for computer data centers, amateur sports events and air cargo exports at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport while also authorizing enticements intended to prevent Kansas City area businesses from being lured to nearby Kansas.

To offset the cost of the new programs, the bill would pare back some of Missouri's current tax incentives, but not as much as a version passed last month by the Senate. If it can pass the full House, the version put forth by the House Economic Development Committee appears to have little chance of being accepted by the Senate. But it could at least allow House leaders to deflect criticism for not voting on a job-creation plan, and it could provide a starting point for further negotiations with the Senate.

Gov. Jay Nixon has urged lawmakers to either send him a "jobs bill" or adjourn the special session that began Sept. 6.

"We need to get Missouri moving and this is one of the ways we can do it, I hope," said Rep. Eileen McGeoghegan, D-St. Ann, a member of the House Economic Development Committee.

Unlike the Senate version, the House bill does not place an Aug. 28, 2018, expiration date on tax credit programs for developers who build low-income housing and renovate historic buildings. Senate leaders have said such "sunset" provisions are essential to reforming Missouri's costly system of tax credits, but House leaders have opposed them because of fears that a single filibustering senator could easily block a bill to reauthorize the tax credits in the future.

The version endorsed by the House Economic Development Committee also leaves out the "Compete Missouri" program — an initiatives backed by Gov. Jay Nixon and the Senate that would roll several existing business incentives into a single new program with easier-to-meet qualifications and new discretionary powers for the Department of Economic Development.

Although Nixon had specifically excluded the provision from his special session agenda, the House committee version nonetheless includes wording expanding the time period for which developers can claim tax credits for assembling large tracts of land in economically distressed areas with the intent revitalizing the area. The tax credit so far has been used exclusively by firms associated with St. Louis developer Paul McKee.

But another provision in the House bill is intended to allow the program to potentially be used by redevelopers of the former Bannister Mall in the Kansas City area.

The House committee had been scheduled to vote on the legislation at 2 p.m. Wednesday. But Zerr delayed the meeting for at least an hour and a half, saying she was waiting for all the committee members to arrive and instructing those wanting to offer amendments to submit them to her assistant. When she reconvened the committee, Zerr offered an amendment making a technical change to the bill and then called for a vote on the legislation without allowing any other amendments.

"What is this? China?" complained Rep. Jamilah Nasheed, D-St. Louis, who got up and walked out of the room.

State Rep. Stephen Webber, D-Columbia, muttered that Republican House leaders were like the comic-strip character Lucy, who continually pulls the football away from Charlie Brown before he can kick it.

"It's like Charlie Brown with football, every time they let us offer an amendment, they never do. And I always fall for it, too," said Webber, who had distributed a couple of potential amendments to the bill.

State Rep. John Rizzo, D-Kansas City, had hoped to offer an amendment inserting the Compete Missouri proposal into the legislation.

Zerr said lawmakers will be allowed to offer amendments on Compete Missouri and other items when the bill is brought before the full chamber. Zerr said she and other Republican House leaders jointly made the decision not to allow amendments in the committee.

"This is a big deal, and we just thought these are amendments that came up very quickly, and we want the full House to debate them," said Zerr, R-St. Charles.

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