PLEASANT VALLEY — Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon got a standing ovation Thursday from auto workers as he signed a tax break bill aimed at enticing Ford Motor Co. to continue making vehicles at a Kansas City-area plant.
Employees of the Claycomo plant and some of their children joined the governor for the bill-signing ceremony at a nearby union hall.
Ford has made no new commitments at the factory, nor has it said what vehicles it might build there. But Nixon said he had a long discussion Wednesday with Ford CEO Alan Mulally and had a "very positive feeling for the future."
Local union officials say Ford will quit making sport utility models at the Claycomo plant by the end of next year. Nixon said he would like to see a new, modernized product built at the plant.
"Our auto industry is poised for growth," he said. "We have got the ingenuity and we have the talent. We just needed sharper economic tools and this legislation will do just that."
The automaker incentives will let manufacturers keep employee withholding taxes they normally would pay Missouri if they improve their factories for new or expanded product lines. It's designed primarily to keep Ford's Claycomo plant, which employs about 3,700 people to make pickup trucks and sport utility vehicles. But Nixon stressed that auto suppliers from around the state stood to benefit from the legislation.
The attempt to save Ford's private-sector jobs will be financed from the paychecks of new public-sector employees. That's because the automotive legislation is linked to a separate bill passed Wednesday requiring new state employees to start paying into their pension funds.
Over 10 years, the automaker incentives could cost Missouri $150 million. The pension changes could save a projected $659 million over the next decade for three of Missouri's main retirement systems. It would require state employees hired after January 2011 to contribute 4 percent of their paychecks toward the pension fund, delay their retirement and require them to work longer to gain eligibility for a pension.
"What we tried to do is maintain the solvency of our state pension fund," Nixon said, adding that the fix was much better than what he was seeing in other states.
Nixon repeatedly received applause and cheers from workers who packed the union hall.
Tom Carr, who works in shipping and receiving at the Claycomo plant, brought his 10-year-old son because he said it was important for officials and the media to see the legislation "affects more than just auto workers."
"I can't imagine anybody who would want to uproot their kids," he said.