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'Conservative 6' Stall GM Incentives; Sentencing Reforms Sent To Governor

State Sen. Cindy O'Laughlin, R-Shelbina, helps delay action in the Senate on May 13, 2019 as part of a dispute over incentives for General Motors.
Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio
State Sen. Cindy O'Laughlin, R-Shelbina, helps delay action in the Senate on Monday as part of a dispute over incentives for General Motors.

Updated at 12 p.m. Tuesday with comments from Gov. Parson:

A state incentive package aimed at getting General Motors to expand in Missouri is running into a major roadblock in the state Senate, threatening to derail some of Gov. Mike Parson’s priorities with less than a week left in the legislative session.

Six Republican senators who object to the expansion of job-training aid and a fund that would help finance the closing of economic development deals led a filibuster Monday on what is generally a quick procedural step to begin the day. That prevented any other work from getting done, as the filibuster, which began around 2:30 p.m., stretched into the night and early Tuesday morning.

“We could get this done without expanding any of our corporate welfare programs, without creating any new programs whatsoever,” said Sen. Bill Eigel, R-Weldon Spring.

The filibuster continued throughout Tuesday morning, with lawmakers like Sens. Bob Onder, R-Lake Saint Louis, and Andrew Koenig, R-Manchester, reading from news articles and books to prevent anything from getting done in the chamber.

Parson wants roughly $50 million in tax credits over 10 years in exchange for GM investing at least $750 million in its Wentzville plant. The credits would also be available to other Missouri automakers who want to make a similar commitment.

The legislation also contains some of Parson’s other workforce development-related priorities, including a “Fast Track” program to give scholarships to adults seeking to go to community college or technical school for a particular skill or trade. It also has a “deal closing” fund which senators like Eigel believe is a “slush fund.”

The stalling tactic came as St. Charles County officials, including Wentzville Mayor Nick Guccione and County Executive Steve Ehlmann traveled to Jefferson City to lobby for the incentives. Two of the senators leading the filibuster — Eigel and Onder — are from St. Charles County. 

St. Charles County executive Steve Ehlmann, (facing the camera at left) speaks to two members of the Conservative Caucus, Sen. Bob Onder (facing camera at right) and Bill Eigel (back to camera) about incentives for GM.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio
St. Charles County executive Steve Ehlmann, (facing the camera at left) speaks to two members of the Conservative Caucus, Sen. Bob Onder (facing camera at right) and Bill Eigel (back to camera) about incentives for GM.

Ehlmann said he generally agrees with his fellow Republicans’ aversion to incentives that try to lure companies from another part of the state.

“But when we have to compete against different states, that’s different,” Ehlmann said. “And yes, I don’t like it. But can we just not do it and just expect GM to come here and not somewhere else, I don’t think so.”

Ehlmann wants Parson to call a special session if lawmakers don’t act by Friday. 

Members of the Missouri House responded to the delay by passing legislation without the Fast Track or deal closing fund. Both Eigel and Onder said they would have supported that proposal. But during an exchange with Onder, Senate President Pro Tem Dave Schatz, R-Sullivan, said taking out those programs was not acceptable.

Senate Majority Leader Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, added there were a number of lawmakers who want to see Parson’s workforce development agenda make it past the finish line.

“I also have to be mindful of the literally dozen or more other senators who have come to me over the course of the last week and have said, ‘We support what the governor’s doing,’” Rowden said. “We’d like to see the governor get a win.”

Parson wants Senate to act

Gov. Mike Parson speaks to reporters with Department of Economic Development director Rob Dixon on May 14, 2019.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio
Gov. Mike Parson speaks to reporters with Department of Economic Development director Rob Dixon on May 14, 2019.

At a press conference with reporters on Tuesday morning, Parson said he was optimistic that senators would have an up or down vote on the legislation authorizing the GM incentives and workforce development programs.

He also said he was confident lawmakers would finish work on the proposal and avoid the need to call a special session.

"I think the majority of people out there in the state of Missouri that I know, the citizens out here, I'll tell you what they'd like — they'd like up and down votes," Parson said. "They'd like to bring the issue up and vote on it. Up and down. That's what the majority of the people out there want."

Asked if he would be amenable to stripping  out the scholarship and deal closing parts of the bill, Parson replied: "I'm not going to leave the rest of the state out."

"More importantly, it's the every day guy out here that's going to get an opportunity to utilize this that will help businesses," Parson said. "This is about getting down to the every day person that goes out there and works. That's why it's important. I want the guy out there that maybe would like a better job to have the opportunity to get the job."

In response to the governor's comments, Eigel told reporters on Tuesday morning that he's always viewed Parson as someone "we're working hard with to find the right path forward on a number of different priorities."

"The question is how do we get there," Eigel said. "And unfortunately, for [this bill], we're not really having an opportunity to have input there as far as being able to amend or change the bill. ... I'm not sure yet if we can fit all that into the last week and half of session. A lot of times bills like this take years to get done.

"But that doesn't take away from the commitment that I made to the governor," he added. "We'll continue to work on this issue. We'll continue to see if there's a path forward. I'm optimistic that we'll find something that can make it work."

The St. Charles delegation in the House made it clear they were prepared to keep sending legislation to the Senate.

“Seeing what’s happening in the Senate, we have to get something done,” said Rep. Nick Schroer, R-O’Fallon “I’m trying to give the Senate several options to figure out how we can get this on the governor’s desk so then the Department of Economic Development can turn to companies like GM who are at the negotiating table ready to invest a billion dollars and say, 'We did a good faith effort, and this is what our legislature came up with.' I don’t want to send just one bullet over there.”

Clean Missouri

The GM incentive package wasn’t the only GOP priority that hit a snag on Monday.

A Senate committee failed to pass a ballot measure that would have allowed voters to decide whether to keep a new state legislative redistricting system. Voters approved giving an appointed demographer much of the power to draw House and Senate maps emphasizing partisan fairness and competitiveness.

The committee deadlocked at 2-2, since a number of Republican senators were absent. The only way for Rep. Dean Plocher’s proposed constitutional amendment to get revived in committee is for someone who voted ‘no’ to ask for reconsideration. Both of the Democrats that voted against the measure, Sens. Jamilah Nasheed, D-St. Louis, and John Rizzo, D-Independence, said they would not change their vote.

“My feeling in general is the people spoke on this in the last election,” Rizzo said. “And this is clearly an attempt to circumvent the will of the people, which we’ve already see them do on initiative petitions.”

A spokesman for the Senate Republican Caucus said they were mulling over what to do next. Missouri Senate rules do provide the ability for a bill that fails in committee to be revived if a majority of senators vote to place it on the calendar. The House could also send a similar proposal to the Senate for consideration.

“There’s a lot of moving parts right now,” Nasheed said. “Nothing’s dead until the last day. That’s the theory that I’ve always held to.”

Republicans see the plan, known as Clean Missouri, as a Democratic scheme to cut down on the huge GOP majorities in the House and Senate. Most Democrats see the plan as the way to keep incumbent lawmakers accountable, since they would have to continually compete to stay in office.

Sentencing reform

By a 138-11 vote, the state House sent Parson legislation that eliminates the ability of judges to send people back to jail solely because they can’t pay a bill for an earlier stay behind bars. It does not stop a county sheriff from using the collections process to recoup so-called board bills, or other court fines and costs.

Rep. Bruce DeGroot, R-Chesterfield, was inspired to introduce the change by a series of Pulitzer Prize-winning columns by Tony Messenger of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

“This is for the people who got put in jail because they couldn’t afford to bond themselves out, and all of a sudden, they owe $1,300 for their week in jail,” DeGroot said.

The bill also eliminates mandatory minimum sentences for a variety of non-violent felonies. People who were sentenced under the mandatory minimums before Aug. 28 would be eligible for parole or other early release.

“This is not something where we are going to be throwing open the prison doors,” said Rep. Shamed Dogan, R-Ballwin, and a champion of criminal justice reform. “We are just giving judges more discretion, letting them do their job to be judges, to determine what appropriate sentencing for this people is.”

Rep. Shane Roden, R-Cedar Hill and a deputy sheriff in Jefferson County, said he was concerned the changes would lead to more crowding in local jails, as people who could no longer be sentenced to prison would violate the terms of their probation.

“When you go back and listen to your sheriff, or the St. Louis County police chief, and they tell you their jail is overcrowded again, I want you to remember that you helped create this problem,” Roden said.

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Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.
Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.