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Missouri lawmakers take up Greitens' call to revamp tax breaks

Marshall Griffin | St. Louis Public Radio

It wasn't that long ago that Republican leaders in the Missouri House and Senate were deeply divided and nearly at each other's throats over tax credits.

In 2011, an entire special legislative session was devoted to approving a wide-ranging tax credit bill that centered around incentives designed to transform Lambert-St. Louis International Airport into an international cargo hub. But differing opinions over the role of tax breaks and concerns that they were getting out of hand sabotaged the special session, and there have been no major attempts since then to give the system a makeover.

Enter Gov. Eric Greitens in 2017.

He announced during his State of the State Address that he would do a "thorough, end-to-end audit" of Missouri's tax credit system, and last week signed an executive order creating a special committee to do a "top to bottom review."

Some Missouri lawmakers are not waiting for the results of the review and have already filed bills that would scale back several incentives and restructure how they're approved.

First, Senate Bill 285 would shrink annual caps on a dozen tax credits, including the two largest: historic preservation and low-income housing. The historic preservation cap would be lowered to $50 million from the current $140 million starting in July; the low income housing cap, though, would gradually drop to $90 million by July 1, 2020.

In addition, the bill would gradually shrink the income tax on corporations to 4 percent from the current 6.25 percent. It's sponsored by Senator Andrew Koenig, R-Manchester.

"If we can lower our corporate tax just a little bit and treat all businesses the same, instead of handing out these subsidies to certain businesses, I think that'd make our economy more attractive to do business in," he said.

The bill would also authorize the Department of Revenue to present an annual report tracking activity on every tax credit program.

Koenig has also been appointed to the special committee Greitens announced last week.

Meanwhile, Rep. Kathryn Swan, R-Cape Girardeau, is taking what could be viewed as a stricter approach. She's sponsoring House Bill 101, which would require nearly all of the state's tax credit programs to be approved each year as part of the state budget.

"I compare it to running a business and adopting a budget in your business for the coming year," she said. "You have a pretty good idea what the incoming revenue might be, and you have a pretty good idea of what the expenses are on an annual basis … but if there's an expenditure out there that you know is going to come through but you have no control over it whatsoever, no say-so over it whatsoever, you don't know when it's going to come in and if you're going to have enough money coming in the door from your annual sales to cover that expenditure, that is not a responsible accounting procedure."

Credit Marshall Griffin|St. Louis Public Radio
Senate President Pro-tem Rob Mayer, R-Dexter, speaks with reporters on Oct. 25, 2011, at the end of a failed special session called to approve a wide-ranging package of tax credits.

Senate president pro-tem Ron Richard, R-Joplin, doesn't think Swan's bill is practical for every tax break.

"Some of them you could (appropriate annually), but those that have a three and five-year span … you can't budget more than one year," Richard said. "So if you're going to give certainty to a business or organization about a (tax) credit, you've got to have a more than one-year certainty."

The only tax credit exempted from the bill would be the so-called "senior circuit breaker," which provides a property tax break for both elderly homeowners and renters. Koenig's bill in the Senate would remove elderly renters from the program and only provide it for homeowners.

Other tax credit proposals being considered so far:

  • HB 296 – would reduce all tax credits proportionally if the state income tax rate is lowered
  • HB 718 – would place an expiration date on all corporate tax credits in Missouri
  • SB 39 – would place a cap on the total amount of tax credits that can be authorized each year
  • SB 346 – would require all tax credits to be appropriated every year starting July 1, 2019

Follow Marshall Griffin on Twitter:  @MarshallGReport

Marshal was a political reporter for St. Louis Public Radio until 2018.