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Rauner expresses enthusiastic support for luring NGA site to Metro East

Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner talks with reporters in O'Fallon, Illinois. Rauner expressed enthusastic support for bringing the NGA headquarters to the Metro East.
File photo | Katelyn Petrin I St. Louis Public Radio
Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner talks with reporters in O'Fallon, Illinois. Rauner expressed enthusastic support for bringing the NGA headquarters to the Metro East.

Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner is bullish about an effort to get the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency to relocate near Scott Air Force Base.

The federal government is mulling over several locations to relocate the NGA’s facility, which is currently in south St. Louis. That includes a location near Scott Air Force Base, as well sites in north St. Louis, south St. Louis County and Fenton.

Talking with reporters in O’Fallon on Monday, Rauner said the NGA represents an “incredibly exciting opportunity for major economic development in southwestern Illinois.”

“We’ve got a detailed walkthrough. I was brought up to speed,” said Rauner, referring to a prior stop on Monday at Scott Air Force Base. “Now having seen the issues, there is clear strategic advantage to our government – our federal government – and our safety. And the opportunity is impactful for everyone. Huge opportunity to bring that to Illinois.”

Rauner said he’ll be working with local and federal officials to lure the NGA site to Illinois.

“I can see the leverage points,” Rauner said. “I’ll be meeting with our congressional leaders. I’ll be meeting with folks in the Obama administration and state leaders to develop messaging and a plan to go to the federal government and put in the word and create the encouragement to bring that here to Illinois. It’s a compelling case. And we’re going to go make that case.”

But St. Louis doesn’t appear to be letting the NGA go without a fight – especially since a departure from the city could result in lost earnings taxes. (Click here to read more about St. Louis’ efforts.)  

Mary Ellen Ponder, St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay's chief of staff, says the city will be "relentless" in keeping the NGA headquarters within its borders.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio
Mary Ellen Ponder, St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay's chief of staff, says the city will be "relentless" in keeping the NGA headquarters within its borders.

“It’s 3,100 jobs,” said Mary Ellen Ponder, chief of staff for St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay. “It’s $2.4 million in earnings taxes. If we don’t get NGA to stay, that goes away. That’s as simple as it gets.”

St. Clair County has offered to provide the land to the federal government for free, although officials say that won’t be a factor in the final determination. Asked how that would affect the scramble for the site, Ponder replied: “We’re relentless.”

“They can put that out there, but we think we have a great plan,” Ponder said. “And the president’s administration and past presidents have really brought home the importance of staying in the urban core. So we’re going to fight as hard as we can to keep it here.”

Meanwhile, U.S. Sens. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and Roy Blunt, R-Mo., wrote a letter tothe director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency.They urged the agency to keep its facility in Missouri.

"Missouri is proud to play a central role in providing critical intelligence to our warfighters that help them keep our country safe," said the two senators in the letter. "This is evidenced by the fact that more than half of the 3,000 NGA West employees call Missouri home. By selecting one of the Missouri sites, NGA will be ensuring minimal disruption to the maximum number of its employees.”

The federal government isn’t expected to make its decision until next year.

Rams in Illinois?

Meanwhile, Rauner vigorously praised the idea of locating a new stadium for the St. Louis Rams in the Metro East.

As the Rams threaten to bolt to Los Angeles, Missouri policymakers have proposed building a stadium on St. Louis’ riverfront. It has the strong support of Gov. Jay Nixon and St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay, but questions remain about whether additional legislative or public votes will be needed to make it happen. 

Vince Schoemehl, former St. Louis mayor and president of Grand Center Inc., talks to 'St. Louis on the Air' host Don Marsh on Jan. 12, 2015, at St. Louis Public Radio in St. Louis.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio / St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis Public Radio
Vince Schoemehl, former St. Louis mayor, talks to 'St. Louis on the Air' host Don Marsh on Jan. 12, 2015, at St. Louis Public Radio in St. Louis.

Former St. Louis Mayor Vince Schoemehl said earlier this year on St. Louis on the Air that it makes more sense to build the stadium in Illinois. He said the region is “never going to recapture downtown or re-establish downtown as the center of this region until we create a impetus to rebuild the Illinois side of the river.”

Asked about Schoemehl’s comments, Rauner replied: “I can tell you, Metro East would be a terrific location for that sort of a facility.”

“We’ve got the infrastructure. We’ve got the hard working people to build it,” Rauner said. “And we’ve got access into St. Louis without a lot of the congestion issues and a lot of the opportunity. It would be a wonderful development all the way around for the greater St. Louis metropolitan area to build that in the Metro East. And I’ll see what I can do to encourage that.”

Rams owner Stan Kroenke is planning to build largely privately funded stadium in Inglewood, Calif., – spurring speculation that the Rams’ days in St. Louis are numbered. But such a move would require the votes of 24 owners – and that’s not a sure thing.

The Rams are currently operating on a year-to-year lease in the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis.

Rauner on labor, taxes and staff

Rauner spent the rest of his wide-ranging news conference opining on a number of hot-button topics percolating throughout the Land of Lincoln:

“Right to work zones:” The Republican governor continued to push the idea of “right to work zones,” which in effect would allow counties or cities to decide on whether to bar “closed shop” unions. “Right to work” is a term used by proponents to describe a policy that would no longer prompt people to pay union dues as a condition of employment.

The idea has faced some serious pushback from Chicago area leaders -- and Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan. But Rauner contended the idea is worth pursuing.

“We do not need to be a right to work state – I do not support Illinois becoming a right to work state,” Rauner said. “However, we do need to make Illinois on the list. There’s a list of states that are right to work and there’s a list of states that are closed shop. Many companies, many corporate employers from around American and around the world will only look to expand or move to open, flexible states.”

To do that, Rauner said, “we just need a few counties or a few municipalities to decide to become open employment flexible areas.”

“We don’t need everybody to do it, we just need a few counties to do it,” Rauner said. “And that’s allowed under federal labor law if the state authorizes them to make that decision.”

Hiring staff: Rauner’s taken heat since he was elected for hiring staffers at high salaries. Some detractorssay it’s hypocritical, especially since Rauner bemoaned the high cost of Illinois government.

When pressed by a reporter about some of his hires, Rauner said: “We’ve got some of the most talented people in America in our administration – superstars.”

“And you know what? To recruit a very talented, impactful leader who can really transform government – those folks are highly compensated,” Rauner said. “We’re asking them to take big paycuts over what they’ve been making in the outside and private sector. But they’re willing to be public servants and take big pay cuts.”

Raising taxes: Rauner was also pressed on whether he’d consider raising taxes, which has become an especially pertinent question after a temporary tax increase expired.

The governor said “I’m open to discussing anything – and I have said I am open to tax reform.” But he went onto say that “we have got to have structural reform prior to that or part of that.”

“It’s scary to structural reform,” Rauner said. “But that’s what we’ve got to do. Balancing a budget is not hard. If you’re sincere about balancing a budget – and I am – ... it’s not hard to do. What’s hard to change is the structure that causes our budget to constantly go out of balance.”

Rauner didn’t specify what he meant by “structural” changes to Illinois government. But it may be a reference to the state’s wrenching disputes over governmental pensions – a fight that’s stretched on for years.

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.