Well, that was a head scratcher.
Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon let word leak yesterday that he had a proposal for quieting down the economic development “border war’ between Missouri and Kansas. He would disclose it when he spoke today at a Chamber of Commerce of Greater Kansas City event.
This apparently was news to legislators and business leaders in the region who have themselves been working on just that sort of proposal. It was also news to key members of Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback’s administration, who have been engaged in those discussions.
Nixon’s announcement created enough buzz to sell out the chamber’s luncheon at the Westin Crown Center in Kansas City. So, amongst great expectations, Nixon rolled out a four-point plan:
• An immediate moratorium within the Kansas City region on the use of discretionary state incentives that merely convince companies to move across the state line to cash in.
• Both state legislators should draft permanent moratoriums into law.
• Leaders of cities and counties should be encouraged to stop offering incentive to border companies.
• Missouri and Kansas should work together to leverage combined resources to promote the region.
As a framework, all of this is fine. It’s exactly what lots of people have been calling for these last few years.
But Nixon wasn’t giving up many details. What would a moratorium look like? What incentives would be frozen? He didn’t say.
There is a fundamental difference between the way Missouri and Kansas hand out economic development incentives. Kansas awards them on a case-by-case basis. Missouri awards them largely through a statute known as the Quality Jobs Act, which contains a formula spelling out what incentives are available and for what.
So when Nixon calls for “an immediate moratorium within the Kansas City metropolitan area on the use of discretionary incentives where jobs are merely being moved across the state line,” that mostly applies to Kansas. When asked if he is open to amending the Quality Jobs Act, Nixon said that would be part of the discussion.
But what discussion?
Missouri Sen. Ryan Silvey, a Republican, said he’d been engaged in talks for months and Nixon’s entry was a surprise to him. Silvey, who is not a fan of the Democratic governor, said he interpreted Nixon’s remarks as a ploy to consolidate the discretion to award economic incentives into the governor’s office. “That’s a non-starter with us,” Silvey said.
Later in the afternoon, a member of Nixon’s administration provided some context.
The Missouri General Assembly passed a new economic development bill this year called Missouri Works, which encompasses the Quality Jobs Act and also gives the administration discretion over some new incentive programs, like worker training. Nixon’s aim is to get the two governors to agree on a moratorium over incentives they control, and then work on getting more permanent agreements passed into law, the staffer said.
The staffer also said the governor’s team had hoped for a joint announcement with Brownback around this time, but that the Kansas commerce department recently formed an advisory group to study the issues further. So Nixon decided to use his pre-scheduled chamber speech to stake out his position.
A little clearer, perhaps. It doesn’t sound as though Nixon is asking for any extra economic development tools for his office, as Silvey and other Republicans were alleging.
Meanwhile, over in Kansas, Brownback implied he’d be driving a hard bargain.
In a news release, the Republican governor said: “It’s good to hear that Governor Nixon is joining this discussion. I have been open to resolving this issue for more than a year and in that time have engaged in active discussion with Governor Nixon. We also have talked with members of the Missouri legislature who are interested in putting an end to this ‘war.’
“In Kansas, we are actively working with our mayors and civic leaders to build consensus around a process that is fair and equitable and allows both Kansas and Missouri to attract and retain business. In the past year, all the net job growth in the KC metro area has occurred on the Kansas side.
“Economic policy in Kansas is designed to make our state competitive on a national and international basis through improved regulations, controlled spending and lower taxes.”
Maybe this is the way parties reach a truce, with confusing speeches, blustery statements and accusations. But if anybody is waving the white flag, I’m not seeing it.