VOTERS GUIDE 2012: Missouri House, Senate candidates share ideas for economic development

Monday, September 17, 2012 | 9:00 a.m. CDT; updated 10:33 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Editor's note: This story originally published in advance of the August primary. It has been edited to include responses from the candidates who will appear on the Nov. 6 ballot.

COLUMBIA — As Missouri's unemployment rate has gradually declined in recent months, local candidates for state office are debating ways to bring more jobs to the state. 

Missouri's 7.1 percent unemployment rate for June 2012 is below the national rate of 8.2 percent. Missouri ranks 22nd among the states for the lowest rate. Its unemployment ranks higher than Kansas' 6.1 percent rate but lower than Illinois' 8.7 percent. 

Boone County, however, has fared better. In June, the unemployment rate in Boone County was 4.8 percent, and there were 440 new claims for unemployment benefits filed.

For the past few years, the Missouri General Assembly has tried to pass economic development measures mostly focusing on new tax credits to create jobs.

The Republican-controlled legislature also voted in 2011 to eliminate the corporate franchise tax — a tax on businesses with more than $10 million in assets. Getting rid of the tax was an attempt to lure businesses from Illinois, which recently raised its tax rates. Democrats in the legislature opposed eliminating the franchise tax because it decreased state revenue by roughly $80 million. Republicans were able to pass the bill, and it was signed by Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon. 

Republican lawmakers also pushed for other measures backed by Missouri's business community. Two bills — one scaling back Missouri's workplace discrimination laws and the other adding occupational diseases to the worker's compensation system — passed the General Assembly but were vetoed by Nixon.

Republicans argued the workplace discrimination bill would protect businesses from expensive employee lawsuits, which would allow them to hire more people. Nixon vetoed the measure because he considered it an infringement on human rights in the workplace.

The push to add occupational diseases to the worker's compensation system would have prevented employees from suing a company in civil court and being able to collect higher damages. By adding employees suffering from occupational diseases into the worker's compensation system, businesses would save money by not having to pay in the court system. Nixon vetoed the measure but signed a pared-down version that prevents an employee from suing another employee over a work-related injury. 

Republicans in the state legislature said both measures would protect businesses from expensive litigation and high damages awarded by the courts. Freeing companies from having to pay expensive court costs would allow them  to hire more workers. 

In 2011, the legislature also reduced the number of weeks a person can remain on state unemployment insurance to 20 from 26 as part of a compromise to accept money from the federal government to pay for the benefits. Under the new law, the amount of time a person can remain on unemployment benefits is 77.6 weeks, which includes 57.6 weeks under the federal system. Missouri's average weekly unemployment benefit is $238. 

Nixon also has sponsored efforts to bring more business to the state. In his proposed fiscal 2013 budget, he called for three additional export offices. He also made trade trips to China and Brazil to promote Missouri products and establish trade agreements and boost exports. 

Nixon also has touted the state's declining unemployment rate to show the economy is turning a corner. Republicans, however, say the only reason the rate has gone down is because people are leaving the work force altogether. Since he took office, Nixon has reduced the state employee work force by about 4,000 people. Nixon also faced criticism for his administration's handling of the Mamtek sweetener plant in Moberly

One of the largest efforts to bring more jobs to Missouri was a plan to turn Lambert St. Louis Airport into an international cargo hub. The plan would have given $360 million in total tax credits to companies that ship goods and build infrastructure. Lawmakers went into special session in 2011 to pass this and other economic development measures. The plan failed as Republicans in the House and Senate failed to reach agreement over how to fund the new tax credit.

Another casualty of the 2011 special session was the failure to pass a tax incentive to lure data storage centers to Boone County. The plan would have provided a state and local sales tax exemption for data storage centers spending money on utilities, computers and equipment.

The company would have had to meet a minimum requirement of $37 million in capital investment and to create 30 jobs to qualify for the tax break. The jobs created would have had to pay 150 percent of the average state wage, currently at $45,000 per household, in order to qualify. Tensions between the House and Senate over the cargo hub and other tax credit programs prohibited this plan from making it to the governor's desk.  

Although state unemployment has decreased since June 2011, when the rate was 8.8 percent, jobs still remain a top priority for local candidates. 

Here's what candidates had to say about their strategies to bring jobs to the state and increase economic activity: 

State Senate District 19

  • Sen. Kurt Schaefer (R): He said the strategy of using targeted tax credit programs hasn't panned out. He said improving investment in public education and infrastructure would "create a statewide environment where everyone can benefit." He added that the state needs to pass bond issues for transportation and higher education. 
  • Rep. Mary Still (D): She said, "one big element for Columbia would be to accept money for expanding Medicaid. It would be between an $8 and $11 billion infusion for the state economy." She also said Missouri should pass bond issues to pay for highway repairs and university projects. 
House District 44
  • Ken Jacob (D): He said the potential for small modular nuclear reactors to be built by Ameren and Westinghouse would "obviously bring a lot of jobs." He also said the "traditional" approach of using tax credits has "crippled our state budget, and we still have high unemployment." Jacob also said more spending on higher education would benefit the economy. 
  • Caleb Rowden (R): He said, "Missouri should encourage entrepreneurship. The government cannot necessarily create good jobs, but it can encourage them and create a foundation for job growth."
House District 45
  • Rep. Chris Kelly (D): He said the state should "issue federal obligation bonds for higher education and other projects" because there are "low interest rates, and the contractors are hungry and people need to work." He said the bonds would have long-term positive effects. 
House District 46
  • Fred Berry (R): He said removing federal regulations and impediments would "lighten the burden on small businesses." He said getting the economy back on track and people back to work is key before Missouri can work on doing anything else.
  • Rep. Stephen Webber (D): He said funding public education is the way to create more jobs. "We need to educate our citizens to meet the demands of employers." He added that more money needs to go to education because public universities are at their capacity and cannot educate any more people.
House District 47
  • John Wright (D): He said it was time to invest in higher education and infrastructure. He said a "more robust infrastructure would have a payback" to the state. 
  • Mitch Richards (R): He said comprehensive tax reform, reducing tax credits and "moving away from income tax and toward a consumption tax" would help add jobs. Richards added he wanted to make Missouri a right-to-work state.

House District 50

  • Incumbent Rep. Caleb Jones (R) said Missouri has to do a better job of promoting its existing businesses by fostering an educated workforce. Jones added that Missouri should embrace new technology and have "the proper infrastructure in place for companies to get their products out."
Missourian reporter Matthew Patane contributed to this report.  Supervising editor is Scott Swafford.


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