After an acrimonious legislative session that ended a little more than a week ago, the Missouri General Assembly returned to work Monday to consider legislation that proponents say could create hundreds of jobs in rural southeast Missouri.
But the lion’s share of debate didn’t focus much on those jobs.
Instead, a group of senators expressed concerns the proposal could lead to higher utility bills for households and businesses all over the state. And they specifically questioned whether Gov. Eric Greitens called the legislature back into session just to benefit utility companies that gave his campaign $178,000 last year.
“Governor, if your real reason is to bring jobs, that’s one thing,” Sen. Rob Schaaf, a St. Joseph Republican, said Monday. “But if your real reason is to make more money for electric companies, you will have a tiger by the tail.”
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At issue is a proposal to allow the state Public Service Commission to approve lower utility rates to aluminum smelting and steel-works facilities in southeast Missouri. The aim is to attract a steel mill that is purportedly considering opening in rural southeast Missouri, as well as allow for a smelting facility that closed in the last year to reopen.
The House signed off on the idea during the legislative session, but it ultimately died in the Senate.
Greitens said in a recent interview with Missourinet that the bill died because of “career politicians in the Senate who, I don’t know why, but maybe for personal petty political reasons, decided to oppose this.”
Critics say it isn’t politics that fuels their concerns. It’s the second part of the legislation the governor doesn’t talk about that could make it easier for utilities to raise customer rates without state approval.
“This could lead to unnecessary rate increases and absolutely has nothing to do with reopening the smelter or a steel mill,” said Sen. Doug Libla, a Poplar Bluff Republican. “This would leave businesses and families vulnerable to monopoly utilities.”
Senators also questioned why the steel company at the heart of the debate that is looking to settle in Missouri hasn’t been revealed.
“We can’t get information from the folks who are asking for our help to try to figure out what is the best course,” said Sen. Jason Holsman, a Kansas City Democrat. “All we know is they want a reduced (utility) rate, and they want ratepayers to subsidize that rate.”
Over the weekend, Greitens held a trio of rallies in southeast Missouri attacking lawmakers for opposing his plan, which he says could create jobs in one of the most poverty-stricken areas of the state.
“We’ve got a company that wants to come to southeast Missouri and make steel,” he said. “They want to come to southeast Missouri and help put you and families to work.”
A nonprofit founded by Greitens’ political advisers joined in the effort, launching robocalls in the area featuring the governor criticizing Libla.
The nonprofit proved controversial during the legislative session after it launched ads attacking Schaaf and giving out his personal cellphone number. Because it is a nonprofit, the group does not have to abide by campaign contribution limits and is not required to disclose its donors.
Libla bristled at the attacks, in particular Greitens’ insistence on calling him a “career politician” despite the fact he’s only served in elected office for five years after decades in the private sector.
“I’ve actually created jobs that he only runs around talking about,” Libla said Monday, noting that he would support the bill if the provisions he believes put consumers at risk of higher utility rates were removed.
Monday afternoon, Greitens once again repeated to conservative talk show host Mark Reardon that “career politicians” were standing in the way of hundreds of high-paying jobs. And he rejected the idea of finding a middle ground on the legislation.
“We’re not going to accept any excuses,” he said. “We’re not going to accept any compromises.”
Several versions of the legislation, some with the controversial provision and some without, were filed Monday. Both the House and Senate are expected to finalize their versions of the proposal this week. If there are differences between their versions, they will have to be worked out before a bill can be sent to Greitens.
The 163-member Missouri House estimates it will cost $50,000 to $100,000 a week for lawmakers to be back in session, depending on how often the full chamber meets. The 33-member Senate, with one vacancy, estimates a $28,000-a-week cost to taxpayers.
These costs reflect lawmakers’ daily per diem, mileage to and from the Capitol and costs of supporting session-only staff.
Greitens has said he may call multiple special sessions this year to work on bills that failed to make it to his desk during the regular session.