State Senate sends international trade hub debate to House

JEFFERSON CITY — Despite previous failures, Missouri lawmakers once again are attempting to create an international trade hub at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport.

Bill sponsor Sen. Eric Schmitt, R-Kirkwood, said having St. Louis as a hub for trade with overseas companies, such as ones in China or South America, is vital for the city’s economy and would make it a gateway to the rest of the world.

“For me, having an airport that connects to the rest of the world couldn’t be more important,” Schmitt said.

The bill would provide up to $60 million in tax breaks for any business, or “freight forwarder,” that facilitates an international shipment through the airport. The Senate passed the bill with a 27-7 vote Thursday.

Lawmakers have dealt with the trade-hub issue for several sessions. In 2011, many dubbed the original legislation “China hub” since the then-$360 million worth of tax breaks was designed to attract Chinese companies interested in transporting goods through the St. Louis airport. Legislators went into special session in 2011 to debate the issue, but never reached a solution.

Opponents of the bill said increasing tax credits takes money out of an already-strapped state budget.

The legislation also includes provisions that would slash some of the state’s tax credit programs, including the historic preservation credit and low-income housing credit, which are two of the state’s most expensive. The Senate went into the early morning hours Wednesday, debating the legislation, eventually approving it with an additional 13 amendments.

While the Senate endorsed the deep cuts to the tax credit programs, members of the House Economic Development Committee said Thursday that they only want to trim those credits, not slash them.

“I want to send something over to the Senate that makes sense, that shows a good faith effort to cut and cap and sunset where it’s appropriate. But I don’t want to throw the baby out with the bath water,” said Rep. Anne Zerr, R-St. Charles, bill sponsor and committee chair.

One area where the House and Senate differ: tax credits for developing low-income housing projects. The Senate wants to make deep cuts and the House doesn’t. Sam Licklider, the lobbyist for the Missouri Association of Realtors, said those credits help poor neighborhoods.

“I want to thank the representative for taking a much more reasoned and measured approach than the people at the other end of the building, who kept me up far too late a few nights ago,” Licklider said, referring to the earlier Senate debate.

In a statement released Thursday, Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon said he supports the Senate legislation because of the restrictions it places on some of Missouri’s tax-credit programs.

“This bill contains long-overdue reforms to our state’s largest tax credit expenditures, which would yield significant savings for taxpayers in years to come,” Nixon said in a statement Thursday. “The overwhelming bipartisan support shown today for reining in these tax credits represents an important step toward getting fiscally responsible tax credit reform to my desk this year.”