After months of quiet negotiations, legislators rushed to the microphones Wednesday to trumpet a tax credit deal that could pave the way for data centers, science startups and Chinese cargo flights in St. Louis.
Leaders of the Missouri House and Senate visited St. Louis — a bevy of local bigwigs by their side — to unveil a massive package of changes to the state's menu of job creation incentives, a package they have been hammering out behind closed doors since the legislative session broke in May.
"This is a monumental piece of legislation," said Senate President Pro Tem Rob Mayer, R-Dexter.
Minutes after their news conference ended at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport, Gov. Jay Nixon said he would give lawmakers a chance to vote on their plan. In a statement, he called the deal "another important step," and pledged to call them back to Jefferson City for a special session — likely in September.
The bill legislators laid out Wednesday would cut up to $1.5 billion in spending on tax credits over the next decade even as it creates several new programs.
Chief among them is the Aerotropolis tax credit, which supporters say is key to efforts to turn Lambert into a global cargo player. The $360 million package would subsidize overseas cargo flights from Lambert and facilities to handle their contents.
"This compromise brings us a big step toward realizing the vision of Lambert as the international cargo hub we all know it can be," said St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay.
The bill also would create several new programs long prized by local businesses, among them tax breaks for centers that house large banks of computers, a stream of state funding to help launch technology startups and a $3 million-a-year credit to bring amateur sports events such as the NCAA Final Four to Missouri. It could even open a window to return control of the St. Louis Police Department to the mayor's office — something Mayer and House Speaker Steven Tilley, R-Perryville, said Wednesday that they would support.
See details of the plan here.
To do all that, while also cutting overall spending, the plan would take a bite out of two big programs that have long been popular in St. Louis: tax credits for historic preservation and low-income housing.
The proposal would lower the cap on historic credits to $90 million a year, from its current $140 million. It also would drop low-income credits to $130 million, from about $190 million now. It would prohibit using most low-income credits on projects that receive historic credits, and it would put both programs up for review by the Legislature in 2018.
Tilley, long a defender of both programs, agreed that the cuts would affect development, but he said they were necessary for consensus on the larger deal.
"I'm not sold on every part of this package," he said. "But I'm 100 percent supportive of the totality of it."
Developers, too, said they had some concerns — particularly about the ban on so-called 'stacking of low-income and historic credits" — but they acknowledged that they can't win every fight. So they have focused on technical changes they hope will make the programs easier to use.
"We have been actively talking to folks and trying to get our position across. We've been effective at that," said Stephen Acree, chairman of the Missouri Workforce Housing Association. "But either it's going to get done, or there's no bill and this all starts over again next year."
While the development community sounded resigned, supporters of a China hub were jubilant. Members of the Midwest China Hub Commission were meeting Wednesday morning as word trickled out about the deal, and there were backslaps and congratulations all around.
The timing couldn't be better, said Lambert Director Rhonda Hamm-Niebruegge. A technical delegation from China Eastern was due to arrive in St. Louis on Wednesday night to meet with cargo companies at Lambert.
"We think they're here to finalize things and get all the pieces in place," to sign a contract with the airport, Hamm-Niebruegge said. She was still hopeful that flights could start in September, the start of peak season for pre-holiday air cargo shipments. She and others involved in the talks stressed that Aerotropolis credits are a key piece of the puzzle.
"There should be no assuming that there will be a deal without the incentive package," said Richard McClure, who represents Civic Progress on the hub commission.
Despite Wednesday's news, hurdles remain. Chief among them is concern by senators who haven't yet signed on.
Senate rules enable a member to filibuster bills they don't like, potentially blocking their progress, and Sen. Chuck Purgason, R-Caulfield, has a long track record of opposing state tax credits. Last summer, he launched a 20-hour filibuster against an incentive package for a Ford Motor Co. plant near Kansas City.
Wednesday, Purgason said he was shocked to hear that a deal had been struck, especially because he talked with Senate leaders Tuesday night and had not been told that a deal was imminent.
"So far, all I've seen is an outline," he said. "We have a concept, but as of right now it's only 80 to 90 percent worked out. You can't really call this a 'deal' when we don't have anything in writing."
Purgason supported a version of the Aerotropolis bill that cleared the Senate in May. But this bill, he said, doesn't include changes to the Missouri Downtown Economic Stimulus Act, which uses state money to fund downtown projects.
"There is still a lot of confusion among senators about what's in this bill," he said.
Also unclear is where Nixon stands.
After launching a tax credit review panel last fall — which came up with recommendations not far from what is now on the table — he has kept a low profile on the issue. Sen. Eric Schmitt, R-Glendale, was a key negotiator who said Nixon's office played little role in talks since the legislative session ended. Wednesday morning, Nixon's economic development chief, David Kerr, said he hadn't yet been briefed on the plan.
At the news conference that afternoon, Tilley and Mayer said they hoped to sit down with Nixon's office early next week to lay out the proposal and urge him to call a special session. Nixon didn't wait. Within an hour, his statement came out.
"The Governor intends to call the General Assembly into special session to focus on passing this bi-partisan jobs package and moving our economy forward," it read.
Then, a few minutes later his office re-sent the statement, replacing "this bi-partisan jobs package" with "a bi-partisan jobs package." Perhaps the change was to fix a typo.
Perhaps it was to give the governor a little wiggle room. Either way, Nixon is scheduled to make his viewpoints a little clearer today in Creve Coeur in a "major policy address on business development."