Hundreds of jobs in Missouri’s bootheel at stake as session winds down

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JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. –With less than 48 hours left until the end of the legislative session, the entire bootheel is watching the Missouri State Capitol. If an economic development bill passes, it’s likely to green light approximately 300 jobs that would replace the hundreds of jobs lost when the Noranda plant in New Madrid County went out of business. 

However, that legislation, SB 302, is in a unique situation. Supporters continue to push what would likely be the first major industrial job growth since passing a right-to-work law earlier this session. Jefferson County Senator Paul Wieland has offered the bootheel a lifeline when he allowed the bootheel’s amendment to stay on his port legislation. However, it would need to make it past one major hurdle: the bootheel’s Sen. Doug Libla, R-Poplar Bluff.

SB 302 initially began as a bill looking to modify provisions to port authorities in the Show-Me State. But after passing through the Senate, the House changed it, adding 10 amendments and turning the bill into a “job-creating” omnibus bill.

Several bills and amendments sought to bring jobs to Missouri, and more than a few looked to return the smelter to the area. If that were to happen, it could potentially restore hundreds of jobs, which Rep. Becky Ruth said could affect not just the boot heel, but the entire state. She said that the creation of jobs puts money back in the hands of Missourians and that in turn leads to spending money in the market.

Sen. Doug Libla, R-Poplar Bluff, presents his gas tax increase bill to the Senate Transportation, Infrastructure and Public Safety Committee Jan. 13, 2016. TRAVIS ZIMPFER/THE MISSOURI TIMES

Sen. Doug Libla, R-Poplar Bluff, presents his gas tax increase bill to the Senate Transportation, Infrastructure and Public Safety Committee Jan. 13, 2016. TRAVIS ZIMPFER/THE MISSOURI TIMES

Less than two weeks ago, several southeastern Missouri county commissioners, mayors, and chamber officials penned a letter to Sen. Libla asking that he allow one such bill to come to a vote.

“We are blessed to have not one, but two companies looking to bring hundreds of jobs to Southeast Missouri with the construction of a steel mill and revitalization of the existing aluminum smelter in New Madrid County,” the letter reads. “An amendment for SB 190 has been proposed that would allow the Public Service Commission to approve an economically viable utility rate for an aluminum smelting facility or steel works facility in our state. It has been proven that without the assurance of a special rate it is not possible for a smelting facility or steel mill to succeed. Whether you support or oppose the amendment, please allow the bill to come to a vote in the Senate.

“Since [Noranda’s] closure the negative impact has been felt in nearly every facet of life. Our stores, schools, and restaurants have suffered losses in revenue. Houses stand empty, families are forced apart because the breadwinner is forced to travel hours away, out-of-state, to find work or the entire family was forced to leave our state altogether. There is an urgent need for new job opportunities and economic development in our southeast Missouri counties. SB 190 could be the key to help your district grow and prosper once more.”

That same piece of legislation that they supported has now been tacked onto the omnibus bill and appears to be the final chance for it to advance in the legislature this session.

“It will create jobs, and that’s what we’re all about. So this is another way to get it done,” Wieland said earlier in the week.

And the legislation and amendments have the approval of those most likely to be affected by it. New Madrid City Administrator Richard McGill says he’s been in frequent contact with Rep. Don Rone about the amendment that concerns the smelter and steel mills.

“From my understanding, the amendment that Rep. Rone put forward would really help the city in their efforts restart the smelter, help them secure a power deal, and help us with a project we’re working on here in the city limits,” McGill said. “It would help get utility rates where we need them to be for those companies. The job loss last year to this area was devastating, and we support anything that is going to help us bring jobs back.”

Libla has been very vocal in his opposition to any utility bills concerning rate adjusting mechanisms but has been very complimentary of the Public Service Commission. In addition to the bootheel amendment, there are also provisions that provide the PSC other economic development tools that he opposes. 

He argues that legislation like SB 190 and the amendments on SB 302 serve only to line the pockets of utility companies. Libla also notes that utilities already own monopolies, since customers do not have a choice between service providers for their homes or businesses.

The senator compares the amendments and bills to “letting the fox run the henhouse.”

“It’s not about the grid, it’s about the greed,” Libla said. “It’s definitely, in my opinion, a utility tax. You have no choice on who your provider is.”

“I don’t have a problem with the process,” Libla continued. He says that the role of the PSC is to serve as a referee of sorts to protect consumers from monopolies, but that if they determine rates need to rise, then that’s part of the process. He says his issue here is that utility companies are trying to use the legislation to circumvent the process.

He says the answers are already there, that the provisions that could allow Noranda to return or get lower rates already exist within the power of the Missouri Public Service Commission.

Libla says manufacturers can already get a lower rate than what is currently specified in Ameren’s tariffs by directly filing a petition or complaint with the PSC, and they can get the motion expedited by showing the PSC a need to work quickly. He says new jobs and economic activity should do just that.

Libla noted that the PSC has, over the course the past year, heard several cases involving Noranda’s rate reduction, which they quickly proceeded with, demonstrating the ability to work with urgency. More importantly, the PSC did approve a special rate for Noranda, which he says shows that a similar special rate for other job creators shouldn’t be too hard to justify. He says it would be even easier if multiple parties joined the filings and supported the rate reduction.

SB 302, having been worked on by the conference committees of both the House and the Senate on Wednesday, now could be brought forward on Thursday or Friday. But that still would require a vote to pass, and that’s even if they allow a vote.

It is expected the bill would pass in the House, and could likely to pass in the Senate. The question, however, will likely come down to whether the Senate will allow a vote on the bill.

For now, with so much riding on the bill, it stands to reason that all eyes will anxiously be on the Senate. 

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