Missouri Senators stall on Joplin tornado aid

By DAVID A. LIEB

Associated Press

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — An effort to provide tax relief to businesses destroyed by the deadly Joplin tornado has stalled under opposition in the Missouri Senate and is in danger of failing during a special legislative session.

State Sen. Ron Richard of Joplin told The Associated Press on Wednesday that he will not move the bill forward because too many fellow Republican senators have concerns about rushing to provide disaster relief before the state knows the full costs from a year of tornadoes and flooding and has developed a comprehensive recovery plan.

“The reality is there isn’t the votes to do it,” Richard said.

The new Senate concerns come despite a 149-0 vote last week by the House to pass legislation allowing property taxes to be pro-rated for businesses destroyed by tornadoes, flooding or other natural disasters — a tax break that would be similar to what already is available to many homeowners. That bill also would have allowed for the creation special Tax Increment Financing districts in disaster areas, which would have diverted a portion of the growth in state and local tax revenues from those disaster zones to help finance redevelopment efforts.

No one testified against the legislation during a hearing Tuesday before the Senate Ways and Means and Fiscal Oversight Committee. In fact, committee chairman Sen. Chuck Purgason said after the meeting that the proposal “sounds good,” and his office had said the bill would be voted upon Wednesday. But later Tuesday, Republican senators met behind closed doors and raised concerns about the state’s general approach to disaster relief. On Wednesday, Purgason’s committee declined to bring the disaster-relief bill up for a vote.

“We’re all in favor of doing what we can for Joplin relief,” Purgason, R-Caulfield, said after the meeting. “We’re just making sure we don’t screw things up.”

Richard said some senators questioned whether school districts and county governments around the state would resort to raising tax levees to offset lost property taxes, if the legislation passed. He said there also are concerns about whether the state would be asked to replenish those lost tax revenues and about the unintended consequences of pro-rating 2011 property taxes for businesses and then also diverting their future tax revenues to the special redevelopment districts.

“The more we got into it, the more I was concerned that to do no harm, I need some more time to figure out exactly what the master plan statewide for disaster relief needs to be,” Richard said.

News that the legislation was stalled in the Senate came as a shock and disappointment to some business owners in Joplin, where the May 22 tornado killed 162 people, injured hundreds of others and damaged nearly 8,000 homes and businesses.

Terri Malcom, the owner of the Kids Korner Day Care Center that was destroyed by the tornado, said Wednesday that she thought the property tax relief had already passed the Legislature. The prospect of it failing would only compound the financial problems she faces in rebuilding. Malcom said her insurance payout has been less than she expected and the city and state are requiring her to comply with more building regulations than she had previously faced.

“I just don’t see how they expect me to pay a tax when I don’t have an income,” Malcom said. She later added: “Ron Richard will definitely be hearing from some people tonight.”

Although Richard cited general concerns about the state’s disaster response approach, some lawmakers suggested Richard also shared some blame for holding up the businesses’ property tax relief.

After Wednesday’s committee hearing adjourned with no action, state Rep. Bill White, R-Joplin, approached Richard and accused him of costing Joplin businesses hundreds of thousands of dollars in property taxes that could have been waived. Richard retorted that White needed to learn that it takes more than a couple people in support of an idea to pass legislation at the Capitol.

White later told the AP that he would try to revive the tax-relief proposal for businesses before the special session ends. He said it would provide an economic stimulus to disaster-stricken cities.

“If there is another option for me to put it back in, I will try to do it, because I think this is an important thing to do for small business in the state,” White said.

Among those expressing concern about moving too quickly on a disaster relief package was state Sen. Brad Lager, R-Savannah. Lager told the AP he actually was fine with approving the commercial property tax relief during special session but wanted to wait on the proposed redevelopment tax districts and other disaster aid proposals.

“Let’s be methodical about this, let’s wait until we get the bills so we know what it costs, let’s wait until Joplin comes to us with a plan and says here’s what we want to do and here’s how we want the state to participate in it,” Lager said.

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Associated Press writer Chris Blank contributed to this report.

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