JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – An extraordinary session came to an end on Friday, as the Senate passed a utility bill aiming to help bring hundreds of jobs to Missouri’s Bootheel without any changes.
Senators spent hours debating HB 1, a bill seeking to give the Missouri Public Service Commission (PSC) special authority to offer a lower rate to steel mills, aluminum smelters and other large consumers of electricity.
If passed, a steel mill would reportedly move to New Madrid and invest as much as $80 to $100 million in new infrastructure, while Magnitude 7 would kickstart the old Noranda aluminum smelter.
The result would enable to PSC to pave the way for roughly 500 new jobs in one of the poorest regions in the state, jobs that could carry an average salary of $55,000.
The support for the legislation was also incredible, as Sen. Jason Holsman noted, saying it was remarkable to see so many groups supporting the bill, that some of those supporters hadn’t shared the same side for more than 10 years.
It was a victory for Southeast Missouri, but more notably, a victory for Sen. Doug Libla and Gary Romine.
Both of the senators in the past have been staunch opponents in regard to protecting rate consumers from rising costs, standing on the opposing side of grid modernization and rate adjustment mechanism legislation during the legislative session.
Libla, Romine, and Sen. Ryan Silvey worked throughout the week to help guide the legislation from the House to the Senate, making sure to help the House craft and put forward a version that could pass the Senate with little opposition. Silvey said they had several conversations throughout the week, and when it became clear that HB 1 would be the vehicle the legislation would move on, he took the messages of his colleagues to the House, where they worked to put together a streamlined bill that could pass both chambers. To do that, the second part of the bill, which included language allowing utility companies to modernize their electrical grids and raise rates on their customers in order to pay for upgrades.
“What we have here is a bill that attempts to balance the attraction of jobs with protecting the consumer,” Silvey said. He said their intent was to make sure they didn’t go overboard in their attempt to create jobs, to temper it with reasonable legislation.
“It ensures that the electric company does not get rich, that the net income doesn’t increase, but also doesn’t decrease,” he continued. “It’s balanced on what the cost is for actually providing that service.”
The legislation also includes a “but for” provision requiring the PSC to determine that “but for creating this special rate, the project would not occur” in the state of Missouri.
For Libla, it was a personal victory. The senator from Butler County was able to help secure the opportunity for more jobs for his constituents, men and women, families living in an area that New Madrid City Administrator Richard McGill described as 9nineof the 10 poorest counties in the state.
“We’re the 11th poorest Congressional district in the country,” McGill told a Senate committee on Thursday.
But it was more than that for Libla. Libla stoically faced criticism throughout the legislative session for being against jobs that could revitalize his district, as well as attacks from the nonprofit, A New Missouri, standing against prior legislation that had appeared in the final week of the session. That legislation would have done what HB 1 now accomplishes, but it also would have included more provisions that could have drastic effects on ratemaking provisions throughout the state.
For Libla, it was never that he was against bringing jobs to his district but protecting all rate consumers throughout the state.
“This is a jobs bill, right now, that we feel like we can count on, that is so desperately needed not only in my district but all around. Right now, it’s going to make a huge impact on many families down in the boot heel that desperately need a job,” Libla said. “This is going to be a great enhancement and get people feeling good about their communities again.
“It means a lot. I come from that area down there, and we need to have opportunities where kids know they can get out of school and go to technical training or college, whatever they would like to do, but we would like for those kids to be able to stay in their communities if they want to and keep that generation going.”
And nothing was a more clear indicator of Libla’s true intentions than the fact that he stood forward as the sponsor of the bill.
The main question going into Friday was whether the senators would amend the bill’s language. Any amendments put on the bill would require it to go back to the House, which puts the legislators in a tougher spot, as they were supposed to have it finished by June.
Freshmen Sens. Andrew Koenig and Bill Eigel both filed amendments, arguing that a special rate in this scenario served as corporate welfare. The amendments sought more protections to ensure that the customers of Ameren Missouri would not be forced to absorb higher costs to make up for the discounted rate.
Each legislator’s amendment threatened to push the special session into next week, but none managed to pass.
After hours of debate, the Senate finally came to a vote on the bill, unchanged from the House version, passing the legislation with a final vote of 24-5 for both the bill and the emergency clause. It now heads to Gov. Eric Greitens’ desk, where it will await his signature.
Benjamin Peters is a reporter for the Missouri Times and Missouri Times Magazine, and also produces the #MoLeg Podcast. He joined the Missouri Times in 2016 after working as a sports editor and TV news producer in mid-Missouri. Benjamin is a graduate of Missouri State University in Springfield. To contact Benjamin, email email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @BenjaminDPeters.