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Kinder champions historic tax credits, putting him at odds with Nixon

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 29, 2010 - Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder today accused Gov. Jay Nixon of advocating "Blagojevich-style politics'' with the governor's call for giving his administration's Department of Economic Development discretionary power over which projects get state tax credits.

Kinder was invoking the name of indicted former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich as he joined forces with several St. Louis city officials, including Aldermanic President Lewis Reed and three aldermen, at a news conference downtown this morning to proclaim "the importance of historic tax credits in the city of St. Louis."

The officials were joined by local business leaders who shared their concern about Nixon's push to persuade the GOP-led Legislature to act before this session ends May 14 to limit state tax credits -- historic and otherwise -- because of the state's budget troubles. The historic tax credit program currently is capped at $140 million a year; all told, all of the state's tax credit programs cost the state close to $550 million this fiscal year.

St. Louis city officials, all Democrats, are solid supporters of the state's historic tax credit program, saying it has helped spark redevelopment of the city's historic -- but often dilapidated -- properties, especially the larger buildings downtown.

Referring to state officials, Reed said, "If you're looking to right the ship, looking for ways to trim the budget, this is not the way to do it."

Reed and others cited a series of St. Louis projects, including the renovation of the Chase Park Plaza condominum/hotel complex in the Central West End, that they said would not have gone forward without Missouri's historic tax credits. Reed said thousands of jobs have been created, and other state taxes paid, because of the program.

Leonard Toenjes, president of the Associated General Contractors of St. Louis, said the issue shouldn't be partisan, or pit urban versus rural. "This is about jobs and putting people back to work,'' he said. Toenjes said a dozen downtown projects were ready to go forward, provided that the state's historic tax credit program remain in effect.

Kinder, who called himself "the token Republican'' in the crowd, said that 41 of 78 development projects across the state "would not have been done last year'' without state tax credits.

He also accused Nixon of improperly blaming the growth of the state tax credit programs for any curbs in state education spending. "It's a false choice,'' Kinder said.

Nixon is holding yet another news conference later today at Lake of the Ozarks to renew his call for curbs on the credits. He is to be joined by members of the Missouri Association of School Business Officials.

As for Kinder's accusations, Nixon's allies countered by noting that: A) some Republican legislative leaders agree that the tax-credit programs need to be curbed; and B) Kinder previously has called for caps in historic tax credits.

In 2002, while in the state Senate, Kinder supported a bill capping historic tax credits at $60 million.

Kinder replied today that supporting caps isn't the same as Nixon's call "to take a hatchet to them,'' or to make them political pawns to favored supporters. "That is poison,'' Kinder said, asserting that whoever was governor would use any discretionary power over the credits to aid allies and punish enemies.

Kinder also asserted that Nixon has repeatedly ignored the fact that the state's historic tax credits already have a $140 million annual cap, put in place last year. "I supported that cap,'' the lieutenant governor said.

Kinder's embrace of the views of St. Louis officials who strongly back the historic tax credit program also may be an early salvo in his bid to build urban support should he decide to seek the Republican nomination for governor and challenge Nixon in 2012. The two have been on strained terms since Nixon took office in January 2009.

In Kinder's last re-election campaign, in 2008, he made a point of promoting his city-friendly views and his amiable ties to some of the region's top African-American officials, even though most were Democrats. That helped Kinder defeat the Democratic nominee, then-state Rep. Sam Page, D-Creve Coeur, in an otherwise strong Democratic showing statewide.

Nixon -- who hails from Jefferson County -- has been on good terms with most St. Louis officials in recent years. But that wasn't the case in the 1990s, when some of the city's African-American officials publicly split with then-Attorney General Nixon over his support for phasing out the state's financial contribution to the court-ordered school desegregation program in place in St. Louis since 1981.

The final settlement of a phase-out plan was forged with the leadership of then-state Sen. William Lacy Clay, who now is one of St. Louis' U.S. representatives and a longtime ally of Nixon.

The controversy remains a sore spot for Nixon. But it's a fact that all the aldermen joining Kinder at today's news conference were African-American.

Even some city Democrats privately warn that the current tax credit fight could resurrect some of that old urban wariness of Nixon. The other question may be whether Kinder has any luck trying to take advantage of it.

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.