A full-court press is being applied to defeat a jobs bill being debated in the Missouri Legislature's special session. The centerpiece of the bill would offer $360 million in tax incentives to turn Lambert-St. Louis International Airport into a freight hub for cargo from China.
The argument pushed by some opponents is that it is yet another economic development proposal that takes from the poor and gives to corporate fat-cats.
As it relates to one section of the bill, which would cut more than $50 million a year from a tax credit that goes to senior citizens, that argument has some merit. But it's not really that simple.
It's important to note who is behind the most serious opposition to the bill. It's not poor folks, old folks, disabled folks or the mentally ill.
It's one of the state's wealthiest developers who has no problem using others to hide his insatiable desire to control a state tax incentive program that he wrote and from which he has profited handsomely.
His name is Jeffrey E. Smith. He lives in Columbia. He builds low-income housing for seniors and others. Mr. Smith makes his money in part by controlling every step of a process that awards him hundreds of millions of dollars in state and federal tax credits for providing that housing.
That Mr. Smith, and other developers like him, produce quality housing for poor people, and senior citizens can't be denied. His projects dot the state, helping people who need to rent such apartments, condos and villas find a nice place to live at subsidized rates.
That the rates already are subsidized is one of the arguments in favor of getting rid of or reducing the senior citizen rental tax credit program.
Multiple state audits, however, have revealed the low-income housing program as horribly inefficient. Every dollar spent produces about 33 cents worth of housing. Where does the rest of the money go?
Much of it goes into Mr. Smith's pocket.
Through a complex web of companies connected to him, he develops the land, applies for the tax credits and sells them on the open market. In some cases, he owns the construction firms and consulting firms that get contracts to build the actual housing.
For years, a small group of conservative lawmakers has targeted the low-income housing tax program because of its inefficiency and because it has been growing larger and larger, even as the state faces a budget crisis.
This year's jobs bill is the closest lawmakers have come in trying to develop new economic development programs by reducing the growth of others, including the low-income housing program and historic redevelopment tax credits, which often are used on the same projects.
The bill has stalled, in part, because Mr. Smith is good at what he does. He is getting help from people of good heart, people who have given their blood, sweat and tears to senior citizen and mental health issues. They are arguing, falsely, that lawmakers and Gov. Jay Nixon are trying to kill the program.
They are not. They are trying to put a cap on it and a cap on historic tax credits, but they are not trying to kill them. Capping two tax credit programs that are the largest in the nation makes fiscal sense. Making the people who support or benefit from those programs come to the Capitol every few years to compete for money hand-in-hand with schoolchildren and, yes, seniors and the mentally ill, is only fair.
What is not fair is for a wealthy developer to hide behind well-intentioned advocates for the poor and mentally ill.
A fat-cat developer writing checks to politicians doesn't tug on the heartstrings the way a roomful of low-income old folks does.
Under the proposal before lawmakers, the low-income housing and historic redevelopment tax credits programs still will be among the state's largest, at amounts higher than similar programs across the nation. Just two years of tax credits in those two programs combined would be worth more than all the credits proposed for the 15-year China Hub program.
That's the reality of the jobs bill, and no developer-orchestrated shell game can change those facts.
Copyright St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Reprinted with permission.