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Bootheel 'jobs bill' heads to gov

A bill that hopes to "grease the wheels" of economic development by lowering utility costs for two companies wanting to bring a new steel mill to the Bootheel and reopen the Noranda aluminum plant in Marston is headed to Gov. Eric Greitens' desk for his signature. The governor called legislators back to the state capitol for a special session on the matter.

A special session called this week by Gov. Eric Greitens that brought lawmakers back to Jefferson City resulted in a proposal agreed to Friday which the state hopes will attract two factories to Missouri's Bootheel.

This week the Legislature revisited a measure that would allow the state Public Service Commission to offer lower electricity rates to companies considering the reopening of the shuttered aluminum smelter at the former Noranda facility in Marston and open a new steel mill in New Madrid County.

The bills supporters say the bill could create up to 500 jobs for a part of the state that is experiencing economic hard times.

In a statement by the governor, he said, "When this bill died a few weeks back, some people in Southeast Missouri told us that they gave up hope that industry could return to their region," Greitens said in a statement. "We won this fight for them, and for all the families who need quality, high-paying jobs."

The bill sent to Greitens' desk Friday afternoon is markedly different than the original one that was under consideration during the regular session. According to Sen. Gary Romine, R-Farmington, the finalized version is missing language allowing utilities like Ameren to modernize their electrical grids and raise rates for customers to pay for the upgrades. That's a feature both Sen. Doug Libla, R-Poplar Bluff, and Romine have voiced opposition to for years.

Romine admits it's been a hard week spent negotiating with other legislators to come to a place of agreement.

"I filed a Senate version, but once we filed our bills Monday and we started going through the process, I stayed in Jeff City the whole week," he said. "I worked with the speaker and other members of the House — and with Sen. [Ryan] Silvey, who is chairman of the Commerce Committee which the bill was going to go through.

"I pretty much spent the week negotiating and massaging the language so that we ended up with what we thought was a very good product to present to the Senate. And since we'd put that much work into Rep. [Don] Rone's bill on the House-side, we felt it was only fitting for his bill to be the vehicle to get it done. Sen. Libla was actually the Senate handler. It was just a good team effort to create a product that I think will go a long way in drawing some business and industry."

Asked about complaints by some of his fellow lawmakers that Romine was fighting against bringing good jobs to the region, the senator stressed that his concerns were about Missouri consumers seeing increases in their utility bills.

"Some of the legislation that we had been fighting during session that would have allowed the utility company to more easily and readily raise rates on consumers was attached to that jobs bill," he said. "There's no way I'm going to vote to pass a bill that's good that has bad language on it. We could not have lived with those consequences.

"So, it was very important that when the opportunity came up for us to deal with this issue on its own merit, I was very happy to support the bill and I did. I spent the whole week trying to get the language to the point where it just focused on the smelter and the steel mill."

Romine noted that there was another important addition to the bill.

"Any new industry or existing business that increases its electrical load by 50 megawatts would be eligible for a special rate as well," he said. "It became an economic development tool and we were able to keep the language off that would have allowed utility companies to unfairly raise rates on consumers. That's what the issue became about and it was very frustrating at the end of the session — in the 11th hour — that it was a Conference Committee report and there was no way to amend or divide the question. So, as much as I hated to, we had to kill the bill with the bad language on it.

"We took the Senate version and did not amend it in any way. We passed it as it was, so now it goes to the governor. The House does not have to do anything other than the speaker has to do the technical signing, the pro tem do the technical signing and then send it to the governor. I don't think they can get it done Friday afternoon, but Tuesday I'm sure it will be completed and on the governor's desk by Tuesday afternoon at the latest."

Kevin Jenkins is a reporter for the Daily Journal and can be reached at 573-518-3614 or kjenkins@dailyjournalonline.com

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