The Missouri legislature meets Monday for a special session called by Governor Eric Greitens. He’s framed the gathering as an effort to create jobs.
The one topic lawmakers will consider is the “steel mill bill”, which is legislation Greitens has assumed ownership of after a lawmaker broke down in tears pleading for its passage on the House floor.
The measure from Representative Don Rone, R-Portageville, passed the chamber 148-2, but failed to move in the Senate. Rone was trying to get legislation passed to allow for the expansion of industrial plants in his impoverished southeast Missouri district.
He says his proposal would help restore about 400 jobs at the former Noranda aluminum smelter site, and would help create 200 jobs at a new Bootheel steel mill.
In order for those projects to be profitable, utility rates from power provider Ameren would have to lowered. The only way for those charges to be relaxed would be for the Public Service Commission (PSC) to take action.
Rone attached language to several bills which would achieve that goal, but none crossed the finish line before the session ended Friday.
In an interview with Missourinet, Greitens chastised lawmakers who opposed Rone’s legislation as career politicians. Among those opponents are Senator Doug Libla, R-Poplar Bluff, and Senator Rob Schaaf, R-St. Joseph.
Schaaf told Missourinet last Thursday that “we will for sure filibuster” if language in the legislation presented in the special session “guts the PSC”.
Libla has expressed concern that Rone’s amendment would open the door for the steel plant and aluminum smelter utility rates to be lowered to a level where other business and residents would be adversely affected.
“If the Rone amendment not had this sweeping deterioration of PSC scrutiny, and only had language that actually helped New Madrid (steel plant location), I would have been an enthusiastic supporter” Libla said in a statement.
PSC Chairman Daniel Hall had stated he had concerns that some of the legislation introduced this year would put too many restrictions on the commission’s authority.
Cara Spencer with the Consumer Council of Missouri, a utility watchdog group, says lawmakers were under extreme pressure to pass favorable bills for the industry.
“The degree to which the lobbyists were hounding and working these bills, we have really not seen that type of pressure before” said Spencer. “The pressure applied on them was really unprecedented.”
Consumer Council released a statement Friday condemning the special session called by Greitens with the intention of passing Rone’s legislation. “The main goal appears to be taxing utility ratepayers to subsidize big corporations and increase profits for monopoly utility companies. At OUR expense!”
Spencer contends the legislation would benefit a few companies, but would be bad for business overall. “The economic effect of passing a bill that essentially increases utility prices across the board for the vast majority of businesses in the state would be really bad for business.”
Senator Gary Romine (R-Farmington) helped block Rone’s amendment during the regular session because it contained other language he found objectionable. He says he could be for it in the special session if no amendments are added.
“As far as supporting an economic development special rate for utility costs down there, we support that” said Romine. “There was some additional language on the bill that we did not support that had some special language on there for the utility companies which would allow them to raise rates on our consumer and bypass the PSC.”
Romine says he won’t support the measure if it gives utility giant Ameren special treatment. “What we don’t support is that Ameren takes advantage of the situation and adds language to improve their status with the PSC, and also adds additional tools for them to raise rates on consumers on other issues.”
It’s also concerning to Romine that some of people leading the PSC were former top-level employees in the energy industry. “They (PSC) are the only filter that consumers have for the rate making process.”
So far, Greitens hasn’t waded into any specifics of the legislation that he’s called a special to address. He’s been sticking with campaign type rhetoric while ordering lawmakers back to Jefferson City.
“We are fighting to bring more jobs to the people of Missouri. Some career politicians failed to do their jobs and then went home. That’s wrong. We’re cancelling their summer vacations and calling a special session to get this done.”