UPDATE: Missouri Senate chief ousts chairman blocking Ford bill

Monday, July 12, 2010 | 2:58 p.m. CDT; updated 8:02 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, July 14, 2010

JEFFERSON CITY — The Missouri Senate is back on course to consider tax incentives for the automotive industry after a committee chairman blocking the legislation was replaced Monday.

The chairmanship change should allow the bill to be debated Tuesday by the full Senate.

Sen. Chuck Purgason, the chairman of Governmental Accountability and Fiscal Oversight Committee, had refused to allow a vote on the automaker incentives because of the bill's $15 million annual cost.

But on Monday, Senate President Pro Tem Charlie Shields removed Purgason as chairman and instead made himself the temporary chairman. The committee was expected to approve the bill Tuesday, clearing the way for floor debate.

The bill is the centerpiece of a special legislative session that also includes proposed moneysaving changes to Missouri's retirement system. Gov. Jay Nixon says the incentives are essential if Missouri hopes persuade Ford Motor Co. to continue assembling vehicles at its Claycomo facility near Kansas City.

The plant employs about 3,700 people making the F-150 truck, Ford Escape and its twin Mercury Mariner, and the Mazda Tribute. Local union leaders have said Ford plans to quit making sport utility vehicles there by the end of next year, and Missouri officials say Ford wants to decide soon where to build its new models.

Ford officials have declined to comment about the company's plans for the Claycomo plant or future products.

The Missouri legislation would let auto manufacturers keep a portion of the employee withholding taxes they normally would pay to the state, if they make factory improvements for a new or modified product. Suppliers to those manufacturers also could get tax breaks.

After the bill passed the House and a separate Senate committee, Purgason adjourned his committee July 1 without allowing a vote on the legislation. He said the bill ran contrary to free-market principles by picking winners and losers with tax breaks, and would sap money from an already tight state budget.

"Sen. Purgason is a consistent, well-respected chairman, but in this circumstance, I believe taking action to protect thousands of Missourians' jobs is the right thing to do," Shields, R-St. Joseph, said in a written statement Monday announcing Purgason's ouster.

Purgason, R-Caulfield, vowed to keep fighting the legislation on the Senate floor.

"I'm going to talk a long time about free-market principles and what I believe the Republican Party needs to stand for," Purgason said.

Earlier this month, Purgason highlighted his opposition to legislation in an electronic newsletter that solicited contributions for his U.S. Senate campaign. Purgason declared in that letter that he "stood in the gap and stopped a special interest tax cut during a special legislative session called by Democrat Governor Jay Nixon."

Missouri's primary elections are Aug. 4.

Purgason is one of several candidates appealing to tea party activists in a crowded Republican Senate primary that features U.S. Rep. Roy Blunt as the front-runner. Secretary of State Robin Carnahan is the leading Democratic candidate in the race to replace retiring GOP Sen. Kit Bond.

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