Audrey Spalding

If the Missouri legislature calls a special session and passes the so-called “Aerotropolis” legislation, it will award a great deal of power to the St. Louis Mayor and the nearby county executives. It should come as small surprise that some of the strongest voices arguing for the Aerotropolis legislation come from the very individuals who stand to benefit from it.

The Aerotropolis bill would give the mayor of St. Louis or the executive officers of nearby counties the power to designate “gateway zones.” While this power sounds innocuous, it has important ramifications.

First, those chief executives would become gatekeepers in the distribution of millions of taxpayer dollars. The Aerotropolis legislation would create $300 million in tax credits that would subsidize warehouse construction. That tax credit money could be awarded only to warehouses built in gateway zones.

Even if motives are pure, the ability to pick what areas could be eligible for hundreds of millions in tax credits would be an incredible power. The legislation does not say anything about monitoring such designations. Nothing in the legislation would prevent one of these chief executives from using such power as an indirect way to acquire campaign contributions or other untoward benefits.

A simple way to stop any such potential abuse of power would be to take the city and county chief executives out of the equation. If the state, despite a lack of substantive empirical evidence that these tax credits will do any economic good, really wants to subsidize warehouse construction, then all vacant land owners should be able to compete equally for the tax credits. There is no need to give special powers to city and county executives.

Second, this legislation would allow city and county executives appoint a three-person board to oversee millions in special tax revenues.

That board could impose a special tax on the warehouses receiving the Aerotropolis subsidies, and then oversee how those tax revenues are spent. Of those special tax revenues, 50 percent would go to the St. Louis airport. But the other 50 percent would be given to a “tax-exempt regional economic development association or associations….” The three-person board would select which associations would receive the money.

This, too, represents increased political power. The chief executives of St. Louis and nearby counties will be in a position to appoint people to determine what agency gets part of those special tax revenues. Nothing will prevent them from appointing individuals who have a vested interest in where those special tax revenues go.

Interestingly, it seems that the St. Louis Regional Chamber and Growth Association (RCGA), the organization that pushed hard for the Aerotropolis tax credits, is a “tax-exempt regional economic development association.” There are others, such as the St. Louis County Economic Council. It appears that these organizations could qualify for the Aerotropolis special tax revenues. Awarding a steady stream of tax revenue to organizations that argued for the legislation that created that tax revenue is exceptionally poor public policy.

There’s a simple answer to all of these problems. Remove the possibility, however remote, of using the Aerotropolis subsidies and tax revenue as a political tool. There doesn’t seem to be a practical reason to include these mechanisms in the Aerotropolis legislation. They do, however, invite corruption into the process. The economic merits of the Aerotropolis tax credits are highly questionable, but if the legislature insists on enacting them, it should not allow that money to be controlled by political figures.

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Audrey Spalding