Seeking consensus

Here’s another lesson in political science that wasn’t in your high school textbook.

Governor Nixon is on the road to make his case for a special legislative session to adopt the “Missouri Automotive Manufacturing Jobs Act.” More than 3500 jobs could be in the balance at Ford’s Claycomo plant as are thousands more in supplier factories throughout Missouri that make the parts used to assemble the cars at the Claycomo Factory that Ford built.

Did that last line sound like something out of the old “House that Jack built” story? We apologize. We got caught up in the rhythm of the thing.

The proposal dangles as much as $100 million in tax breaks in front of Ford in an effort to get the company to upgrade the Claycomo plant and bring in new production to replace vehicles it’s going to stop making later this year there. Other states are singing siren songs to Ford, too, hoping to lure the production to them. Claycomo is the last major auto assembly plant left in a state that once was the nation’s number two auto-producing state. GM has a van plant at Wentzville but its status doesn’t match Claycomo. So the fight to keep Claycomo at full production is an intense one and could be tinged with a hint of desperation.

A lot of pieces have to fall into place for this to work. Let’s consider how two basic pieces need to fit together in this puzzle.

  1. A majority of members of the House and Senate have to agree to pass the bill.
  2. A majority of members of the House and Senate have to agree on how to pay for the bill.

Sounds semi-simple, doesn’t it? Piece One apparently is. The bill passed the House in May and would have passed the senate until Part Two sank in the House. But Senators did not want to approve Piece One without the way to pay for it. Piece Two was that way. Had the House passed Piece Two, the Senate would have immediately gone to the final vote on Piece One.

PieceTwo–paying for Piece One–has been a proposed change in the way state pensions are financed for future state workers. There are pieces within this piece that require special attention. The pension reform bill requires new state workers to contribute part of their salaries to their pension plans with the state providing a match. Present state employees do not contribute to their state pension plans now. Supporters of the present system say the state makes up for the low wages it pays it workers by having taxpayers foot the entire bill for their pension plan contributions. Backers of the change say the state cannot afford to keep; doing that. By making the change in the pension system for future state workers, the state then frees up cash that can be used elsewhere. In this case, that cash would offset the taxes the state would not collect from Ford.

For various reasons, some House members including some with some political heft, are lukewarm to like that idea. And some don’t like the idea of linking state government pension reform to the Ford plan.

In better economic times the two issues might benefit as stand-alone issues. But in today’s economy when every job is precious and saving them is a big political hat-feather, and when the state is forced by circumstances to look at things like the way it finances its employees’ pensions, tying one issue to the other does seem practical to many lawmakers.

Getting from “many” to “majority” in the House appears to be the ticklish part.

House Speaker Ron Richard, not known as an excitable sort, has told the Joplin Globe he favors “trying to figure out if there is a consensus for a special session.” He says he’s told committees that would be involved to talk to their counterparts to see if there is “common ground.” We told you he’s not known for being excitable.

There’s another issue. If the legislature passes the Ford bill and passes the bill making pension changes to finance it but Ford doesn’t rise to the bait, do the changes in the pension system go into effect anyway? As we understand the way things are now structured, the answer is yes.

And that brings us to strategy. Special sessions cost money. The next fiscal year starts on July 1 and the state budget office says Governor Nixon needs to reduce the next budget by $350 million dollars to keep it balanced for the fiscal year. Calling a special session that will cost money the state does not have—-albeit a drop in the bucket compared to $350 million–will strike some people as being politically questionable. That concern could be mitigated if the special session is held in conjunction with the regularly-scheduled veto session in September. But September might be pretty late in the Ford incentive game.

A special session within the next two weeks would be billed to the current fiscal year in which the Governor has cut and withheld about one-billion dollars. Maybe there’s enough left in the petty cash drawer to afford the special session this month. That circumstance certainly adds urgency to the Nixon’s consensus-building effort.

The costs could be reduced if the Senate does not even show up until after the House has passed the pension reform bill. If the session is called and if the House turns out to be as reluctant to act as it was in May, there’s no reason to even consider the Ford bill unless lawmakers decide the state doesn’t need to pay for the gifts it offers Ford. Don’t try to hold your breath until THAT happens.

One major thing could add a lot of clarity to this issue. The voice of Ford. But the last we heard, Ford was taking a hands-off position. It’s not saying publicly that it will do what the state wants it to do if the state dangles the big financial carrot. Neither is it saying it doesn’t like vegetables.

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