Missouri can’t afford to risk losing GM plant. Tax incentives are a small price to pay

In 40 Years, He’s Seen A Lot Of Changes At GM

James "Bubba" Humes works in the light repair shop at the General Motors plant in Arlington. A full-size SUV rolls off the line every 56 seconds.
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James "Bubba" Humes works in the light repair shop at the General Motors plant in Arlington. A full-size SUV rolls off the line every 56 seconds.

This week, the Missouri General Assembly should approve a package of economic incentives designed to keep a General Motors plant near St. Louis up and running.

The Missouri House has already done its part, passing the incentives bill last week. The plan includes $50 million in tax credits over 10 years if GM invests $750 million in upgrades to its existing car plant in Wentzville, just outside of St. Louis.

The Senate can accept the House proposal and pass the incentives this week before adjournment.

Yes, it’s a close call. Opponents have called the package “corporate welfare” and “crony capitalism.” There is a nugget of truth in those claims.

In a perfect world, public incentives for private enterprise would be unnecessary. GM, and all manufacturers, would rise or fall based on their own decisions in the marketplace. Taxpayers would not be involved.

But this is not a perfect world. General Motors is closing plants. The suburban St. Louis plant might well be on a list for closure absent these relatively modest incentives. Some 3,500 good-paying jobs would be lost.

Former President Barack Obama’s auto bailout remains the target of criticism and derision, yet it undeniably worked to the eventual benefit of U.S. taxpayers.

And the Kansas City area knows there is a price to keep car plants up and running. In 2010, Ford Motor Company contemplated closing the Claycomo assembly plant in our region. Then, 3,900 jobs were at stake.

Gov. Jay Nixon called a special session of the legislature to consider a series of tax incentives for the Ford plant. In the end — after a filibuster similar to the one threatened now — the state provided $150 million in incentives to keep the plant open.

The plan worked. Ford-Claycomo is producing vehicles today. By contrast, the former GM plant in Leeds remains largely a ghost town.

Some lawmakers are worried about other components of the incentives bill, including a so-called “deal closing fund” that would make available incentives for other economic development projects. The GM incentives have been grafted on to a more comprehensive workforce training measure championed by Gov. Mike Parson.

That parliamentary maneuver is regrettable, but it shouldn’t be fatal for the GM incentives. If the answer is a separate vote on the GM package, Parson should step aside and let that happen. If the only way forward is a catchall incentives package, conservatives in the Senate should allow a vote.

Either way, lawmakers must act this week to ensure that the Wentzville GM plant remains an attractive option for the company. A modest public investment will pay dividends for GM workers and for the state.

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