JEFFERSON CITY • A panel of state lawmakers endorsed Tuesday a plan to help bring an estimated 500 jobs to southeastern Missouri as part of a special legislative session called by Gov. Eric Greitens.
The legislation, which is designed to pave the way for lower electric rates for two industrial customers in the Bootheel region, now heads to the full House for further debate, probably Wednesday. If approved, the process would then shift to the Senate, where similar proposals have floundered in recent years.
The forward progress of the controversial plan came as Greitens, a Republican, held a fourth campaign-style rally in as many days aimed at generating support for the changes he is seeking to the state’s electricity regulating agency.
After speaking on the steps of the Capitol, Greitens led attendees through the building to lobby senators who may block the bill.
Rallygoers either spoke with lawmakers directly or signed fliers reading “We don’t want welfare, we want to work”and taped them to the office doors of opponents such as Sen. Doug Libla, R-Poplar Bluff.
The measure would allow the state Public Service Commission to approve lower electric rates for an aluminum smelter and steel mill operation. But critics say that by loosening the regulatory process around Ameren Missouri, the monopoly utility could ultimately end up charging more to regular individual ratepayers.
The smelter would be situated at the former Noranda facility, near Marston, which was purchased out of bankruptcy by a Switzerland-based firm last year.
The steel mill owner has signed a confidentiality agreement to keep the company identity under wraps as it competes with other sites in New York and West Virginia, lawmakers said.
Democrats were uneasy about the secrecy, especially when it could result in higher electric bills for customers of Ameren.
“This is a tax. We’re charging Ameren customers extra money in order to help some mystery company,” said Rep. Tracy McCreery, D-Olivette.
Cara Spencer of the Consumers Council of Missouri said even small increases in utility prices could affect poorer residents.
“Household energy is not a luxury. What we’re looking at here is a tax increase,” Spencer said.
Greitens dismissed those concerns while speaking to reporters Tuesday.
“We’ve heard a lot of excuses from a lot of career politicians about why they didn’t do their job,” Greitens said. “We want affordable energy for everybody, for families and for businesses that want to open here in Missouri.”
The measure moved out of the House Utilities Committee on a 10-3 vote.
Rep. Don Rone, R-Portageville, who is sponsoring the legislation, said the steel mill would invest between $80 million and $100 million in a plant to be situated in an industrial park in New Madrid.
Specifically, Rone’s legislation would allow the PSC to approve a special rate for the two facilities not based on the actual cost of service. The legislation would prohibit the commission from modifying or rescinding the rate for 10 years.
“It sounds like this bill is a good investment,” said Rep. Bruce DeGroot, R-Chesterfield.
Missourians at the rally said job loss had severely crippled the region, with families forced to move elsewhere and local schools losing money.
“Locally, we’ve done all we can do,” said Donnie Brown, a New Madrid resident and former mayor who rode nearly five hours on a bus with his family to attend the rally. “We don’t want southeast Missouri to become a ghost town.”
The buses that brought residents from southeast Missouri to lobby for the change were bankrolled by A New Missouri Inc., a controversial nonprofit formed by Greitens’ close political advisers.