JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri Gov. Mike Parson pushed Tuesday for an up-or-down vote on a package of new business tax breaks and scholarships as a group of fellow Republicans blocked all work in the state Senate because of opposition to parts of the bill.
Members of the Senate's Conservative Caucus began filibustering around 2:30 p.m. Monday and carried on through the night into Tuesday, defying their own Republican leadership and thwarting one of the governor's top priorities during the final week of work in the annual legislative session.
At issue is legislation passed last week by the state House that would allow General Motors to receive up to $50 million in tax credits if it invests $750 million to expand a Wentzville plant that makes trucks and vans. The GM incentives were wrapped into legislation that also creates a new scholarship for adults to finish their college degrees and gives the Department of Economic Development discretion to provide upfront tax breaks to other businesses before they complete their planned expansions or hire additional employees.
Opponents have denounced the upfront tax breaks as a "slush fund" that would be ripe for corruption and they have opposed the new scholarship, which could only be offered to people going into fields designated by state higher education officials.
But Parson said he doesn't want to separate the GM incentives, which appear to have more support, from the rest of the package.
"I am not going to do one piece of legislation for one company or one community," Parson said. "This is about the entire state of Missouri."
The group filibustering the legislation includes Republican state Sen. Bob Onder, who said his St. Charles County district includes the GM plant. Onder said he is fine with the incentives for GM but that he believes that providing upfront incentives to businesses could create an atmosphere for corruption.
"The potential for the appearance of pay-to-play is just incredible with deal-closing funds," Onder said.
Parson said Missouri needs a flexible deal-closing option to compete with similar incentives already offered by neighboring states. He said Missouri recently lost a bid to bring a gun manufacturing company to Kansas City because of a deal-closing fund in Arkansas.
Others in the Senate's Conservative Caucus have expressed opposition to a provision that would authorize what Parson has called the "Fast Track" scholarship program. The full-tuition scholarships would be available for up to four semesters to people ages 25 or older who earn less than $40,000 annually for individuals or $80,000 for married couples. The budget passed last week by lawmakers includes $10 million for the new program.
Both the closing fund and scholarship were part of Parson's agenda outlined earlier this year, before the opportunity arose for an expansion at the General Motors facility. Onder said the GM incentives could pass quickly if the other provisions were stripped out.
The House on Monday passed a new version without those provisions, but Parson and Senate leaders prefer the original bill. The latest House version also would require GM to retain 90% of the current jobs at the plant in order to qualify for the new tax breaks.
Republican Senate President Pro Tem Dave Schatz told The Kansas City Star that "folks from GM have made it very clear that there is some poison pills in there." He said one of those objectionable measures was the requirement to retain 90% of the jobs at the plant.
Parson said he wants to let the job-retention threshold be decided by negotiations involving the Department of Economic Development.
Department Director Rob Dixon said businesses that receive job-retention incentives are required, on average, to keep 88 percent of their workforce.
He said GM also has concerns about a provision in the latest House version that would prohibit the company from simultaneously using other economic development incentives.
General Motors spokeswoman Jeannine Ginivan declined to comment about specific parts of the Missouri legislation, but she said in an email that GM supports "the Governor's efforts to encourage investment and economic growth in Missouri."
Ginivan said GM has not decided whether to choose Wentzville for an expansion.
"There are several factors that go into making these decisions, including the overall business case for a project, discussions with state and local community officials and discussions with the UAW" union that represents employees, she said.
Missouri lawmakers have until 6 p.m. Friday to pass legislation before all work must end.