By DAVID A. LIEB
A Missouri incentive fund for science and technology businesses has been quashed before it could get started, as the state Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that lawmakers had illegally linked its existence to an unrelated economic development proposal.
The high court's unanimous opinion upholds a ruling last year by a Cole County judge, who determined a contingency clause in the Missouri Science and Innovation Reinvestment Act violated a state constitutional requirement that bills address only a single subject.
The fund had been intended to generate millions of dollars for Missouri's biotechnology industry, by setting aside a portion of the tax revenues generated by existing science and technology firms to finance grants for similar startup businesses.
The Missouri Biotechnology Association, which had worked for several years to get the incentives passed, said the court ruling will force it rethink its strategy. Supporters could try again to pass a similar bill, or they could seek additional funding for high-tech businesses through the nonprofit Missouri
Technology Corp. and the state budget process.
"We felt like we had a comprehensive piece of legislation that could move the state forward and help diversify our economy in the high-tech sector," said association Executive Director Kelly Gillespie, who expressed disappointment at the court ruling.
Although passed by lawmakers during a 2011 special session and signed into a law by Gov. Jay Nixon, the legislation contained a clause making it effective only upon passage of a separate special-session proposal that would have overhauled the state's tax credit programs. That separate bill ultimately failed, yet Nixon directed his administration to implement the new incentive fund anyway and sought to include a total of $5 million in the 2012 and 2013 budgets to get it going.
That prompted a lawsuit by the Missouri Roundtable for Life and other anti-abortion activists who feared the fund could have been used to finance human embryonic stem cell research.
St. Louis attorney Steve Clark, who argued the challenger's case before the Supreme Court, said he was gratified by the victory.
"This was a logrolled bill, which the court agreed with, that was a handout of taxpayer funds to the governor's pet projects," Clark said.
Nixon spokesman Scott Holste said Missouri has seen significant growth in high-tech businesses - even without the incentive fund.
"Governor Nixon will continue to push forward on fostering investment in science and technology in Missouri," Holste said in an emailed statement.
The Supreme Court said its decision Tuesday marked the first time it had considered whether the Legislature could make a bill contingent upon the passage of separation legislation covering a different topic. Its answer was a solid "no."
"The single subject rule would become meaningless if the legislature were able to condition the effectiveness of one bill upon passage of another bill covering a different subject matter," the Supreme Court wrote. "It would create the kind of logrolling the single subject rule is intended to prevent by allowing legislators to tack unpopular subjects on to bills to obtain a majority vote."
In arguments last September before the Supreme Court, the state attorney general's office had agreed that the contingency clause was unconstitutional but had suggested it could be severed from the bill to allow the incentive fund to take effect.
The Supreme Court declined to do so, saying it was doubtful the Legislature would have passed the legislation without the contingency clause. The high court noted the contingency clause was referenced in the title of the final bill and that previous versions without it had failed to pass.