January 31, 2013

Part 1: It Is Time To Close The Book On Aerotropolis

Last year, Saint Louis County officials decided to revive the moribund Aerotropolis project, a part-cargo, part-real estate tax credit boondoggle which in 2011  nearly received hundreds of millions of dollars from the Missouri Legislature. The County’s resurrection in 2012 of Aerotropolis, which was targeted for development at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport, was considerably smaller in scale than the original, with funding to come from (of all things) $3 million in gambling tax revenues.

So it is not surprising that Aerotropolis supporters are coming back to the state for more moolah in 2013. On Saturday, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that Lambert would now be gunning for a new $60 million cargo tax credit from the legislature this session.

Gone this time are $300 million in credits to fund real estate development around Lambert. Gone, too, is the lofty name; this version is dubbed the bureaucratic Missouri Export Incentive Act. What remains is an eight-year, $60 million tax credit strictly for air cargo flights from St. Louis.

“We want to keep it simple, and focused,” said Dan Mehan, chairman of the Midwest Hub Commission. “It’s very much slimmed down from what you’ve seen in the past.”

I’ll say it is slimmed down. Back in 2011, Aerotropolis supporters told the legislature that they needed nearly a half-billion dollars in state support for the project to work. When that failed, supporters came back and said $360 million in state funding would be enough to get the project off the ground. (Pun intended.) When that proposal failed in the face of fierce opposition, supporters revised their figures again and concluded that $60 million would do the trick. They received nothing.

The only reason the Midwest Hub Commission has resigned itself to delivering a “slimmed-down version” of Aerotropolis is because no one in Jefferson City has an appetite to fight another long battle for this handout. Audrey Spalding and I were deeply critical of the Aerotropolis plan two years ago because its economic arguments were highly flawed and its marketing was highly questionable. Case in point: some legislators who supported Aerotropolis were talking up Missouri beef exports to China as an Aerotropolis selling point — despite the fact that American beef is banned in China. Indeed, the organization Mehan leads, the “Midwest Hub Commission,” was formerly called the “Midwest China Hub Commission.”

New bill name, new organization name . . . same stuff.

Supporters can call Aerotropolis whatever they want, but it is still Aerotropolis. Now on its third time before the legislature, and after an utterly failed dry run for Saint Louis County to fund it, it is time for Missouri to close the book on Aerotropolis. Instead of centrally planning Missouri’s economy, the legislature should focus on broad-based tax reforms that reduce taxes for all businesses, not just the chosen few. Enough is enough.

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