Missouri Legislature nears mandatory quitting time

For the fourth straight year, Missouri lawmakers were entering the final day of their annual session with a proposal to overhaul the state's numerous tax credit programs still lingering as a remote possibility.

Facing a mandatory quitting time of 6 p.m. Friday, legislative leaders planned to make one final attempt to pass legislation that would create several new business incentives while scaling back the amount of tax credits awarded annually for the renovation of historic buildings and the construction of low-income housing.

The agenda for the final day could also include one last attempt in the Senate to refer a transportation sales tax to the 2014 ballot.

Even if both of those matters fail, Republican legislative leaders already were declaring the session a success. They highlighted the passage of a potential $700 million income tax cut, new labor organization restrictions, numerous pro-gun measures, a tweak of the state's education laws governing unaccredited schools and a bill that would restock an insolvent state fund for disabled workers, among other things.

The tax credit overhaul also was listed as a priority by some lawmakers and Gov. Jay Nixon when the annual session began in January. But as in the past, House and Senate members had different opinions about how greatly the state should curtail the historic and low-income housing tax credits.

A plan being circulated for final-day consideration would reduce annual tax credits for historic preservation projects to $90 million from the current cap of about $140 million. It would gradually lower the cap for the main low-income housing tax credit to $110 million annually from the current $135 million.

House Speaker Tim Jones called those “significant cuts,” though some senators said the reductions still did not go far enough.

The proposal also would create several new incentives for businesses, including ones targeted at computer data centers and investors in startup technology companies. And it would extend the expiration date on a somewhat controversial tax credit that has allowed a developer to amass a large amount of land in north St. Louis.

“It's the first time we've moved a significant tax credit reform bill this far into the process,” said Jones, R-Eureka. “Now it's really up to the Senate as to whether or not they want to bring this across the finish line, or if they can.”

Senate Majority Leader Ron Richard, R-Joplin, said he was going to make an attempt to do so Friday.

But Sen. Brad Lager, R-Savannah, said he would block the legislation.

“There is no agreement on a tax credit reform bill,” Lager said. “These people are drunken sailors. … They cannot quench their thirst to spend. No way is that bill passing.”

Similar measures have failed in each of the past three regular legislative sessions and in a fall 2011 special session that had been called by the governor for the specific purpose of overhauling the state's tax credit programs.

Last year, Missouri redeemed about $629 million of tax credits, which directly reduce the amount of money the state receives in tax revenues.

In addition to the broad-based bill curtailing and creating tax credits, another measure pending on the final day would merge four of Missouri's current business incentives into a new program called Missouri Works. In general, the new program would make it easier for businesses to qualify for incentives but would also give the Department of Economic Development greater flexibility in determining how much aid they should get.