Walked into the office of Senate President Pro tem Rob Mayer after the senate adjourned this morning and joined fellow capitol press corps curmudgeon Phill Brooks in a talk with the Senator. The senate had just wrapped up a short but intense first week of the special session with a new 288-page economic development bill before the senators. This is the one that provides $360 million in tax credits for the St. Louis Aerotropolis effort, the hope that Lambert-St. Louis Airport can become a huge Midwest hub for the importation of products from China and the exportation of Missouri products headed to China.
There’s a lot of passion on both sides of this bill and for various reasons you can read about elsewhere.
Senator Mayer had announced shortly before adjournment that the Department of Economic Development had worked up a REMI model that shows the return on investment that Missouri would get if it does ahead with the China hub. He was hoping senators could get briefed this (Thursday) afternoon. Phill and I were told that the “administration” wanted the press excluded from the meeting.
The blood pressures of two capitol reporters spiked. Phill said something like, “You want to talk about a third of a billion dollars in taxpayer money in secret?” And I think I said something like, “This could get ugly fast.” Both of us knew we would be there when the doors opened and we would go in and we’d have to be thrown out of the meeting in the state capitol to talk about the use of state taxpayer money to underwrite a privately-developed project that several folks in the legislature and elsewhere have questioned as economically nonviable.
The communications director for the Republican caucus in the senate, Farrah Fite, who is very well-versed in the attitudes of reporters about things such as this, instantly recognized something serious was happening and quickly called somebody for clarification. “They’ve decided reporters can be in the room for the presentation but not when senators want to start asking questions,” she updated us. The two grizzled veterans of many a legislative session indicated that wasn’t going to happen either.
Senator Mayer and Farrah said they’d get to the bottom of the situation as Phill and I left the office. We saw the bill’s sponsor in the hall talking to the president of the state chamber of commerce, etc., and we mentioned this secret meeting thing to them. Neither of them saw any problem with letting reporters listen to the discussion.
So I headed down to the second floor to talk to one of Governor Nixon’s press people, Scott Holste, with whom we have worked for many years. He said he wasn’t aware of the problem but said he’d look into it. Scott’s been a lot of help for a lot of years although sometimes he labors within a system that we have lambasted from time to time before here.
Back in our capitol office, we mentioned the “secret meeting” thing to a couple of fellow reporters in the press room complex who also rather quickly found some umbrage to take and then retired to our Twitter account and set fire to the prairie.
A few minutes later, Scott was on the phone to assure me that the secret meeting idea was “not the case.” He mildly chastised me for scorching the earth before getting a response from “the administration,” and I sympathized with him.
Later, Farrah told me that she had gotten her information from another senate staffer who had gotten it from “the administration.”
The meeting, by the way, was cancelled because the economic development folks couldn’t get all their paperwork together for a comprehensive briefing today. It’ll be early next week instead. And the capitol press corps will be there.
Newspaper readers and people who listen to our newscasts seldom know what it takes to get a story. Sometimes news is dumped into our laps — legislative sessions are major dump sessions for reporters. Sometimes we have to do a lot of digging. Sometimes we have to bare the claws. And sometimes we have to start a prairie fire. Some prairie fires are warranted. Some are not. As of this writing we confess we’re not sure if this one was necessary. But it sure cleared up an issue fast.
Good reporters — and Missourians are well-served by a dedicated group that makes up the capitol press corps — re not afraid to carry matches.
Bob, Missouri’s citizen activists are learning to carry their own box of matches as well.