Bare-Knuckle Politics in the Missouri State Senate

The president pro tem removes a committee chairman and installs himself, looking to pass a tax-incentive bill for Ford

When Missouri state Sen. Chuck Purgason woke up on Monday morning, he didn't expect to be yanked from his committee chairmanship by the president pro tem, who wanted to pass a $150 million tax-incentive over Purgason's opposition. But that's what he got.

The Missouri Senate has been holding a special session for the past few weeks partly to consider a bill that would grant $150 million in tax breaks to automakers who expand production in the state, ostensibly to get Ford to keep a plant operating outside Kansas City. Last month, Ford reportedly decided to move production to Kentucky, where lower taxes and a lack of unions would make manufacturing easier.

With thousands of jobs and many dollars at stake, the pressure to pass a Ford-incentive bill was heavy. Gov. Jay Nixon told the legislature that Ford would leave unless action was taken.

Enter Chuck Purgason, the Republican chairman of the Government Accountability and Fiscal Responsibility Committee who is running for U.S. Senate in an August primary against Rep. Roy Blunt; Purgason is one of a handful of senators to oppose the bill, suggesting in its place broader tax cuts for businesses. As chairman of this particular committee, he has authority over any bill that would cost over $100,000. Last week, he blocked the Ford bill.

This did not sit well with fellow Republican Sen. Charlie Shields, who has worked with Perguson in the Missouri House and Senate for 12 years, and who represents a district about an hour north of the Ford plant.

So what did Shields do? He removed Purgason as chairman of the committee and installed himself atop the committee instead.

"He called me and said he was removing me [as] chair and that he was going to temporarily remove me, move the bill, and then reinstate me as chairman," Purgason said. "And I basically said, 'I'm not going to do that. If you're going to remove me, remove me.' I bascially felt that I was being a puppet at that point."

Shields issued a statement calling Purgason a "good friend a senator"--but--"unfortunately, his philosophies and decision to not vote on this bill hinder Missouri from competing for jobs in today's world. Some may not like it, but we must pursue tax-incentive programs to compete with other states to keep and bring new jobs to Missouri."

Purgason's response: along with two other senators, he held a 21-hour filibuster on the Senate floor to stall passage of the bill, talking about free-market principles, tax cuts, and Ronald Reagan.

The filibuster ended this morning, and the Ford bill finally passed, 20-7.

Purgason seemed nonplussed about the whole situation when I talked to him earlier today. There was little vitriol in his voice, but you can tell he's not happy about it, either. At all. "You know, it's always a surprise that your leadership removes you for standing up for what [you] believe the committee was supposed to do," Purgason said, pointing out that Missouri is facing a billion-dollar budget shortfall.

"For four months we're not able to break Democratic filibusters," Purgason said of the Missouri Senate, home to 23 Republicans and 11 Democrats, "but we're willing to drive our members into the ground to pass a bill." What perplexes Purgason most is that Ford didn't lobby fort he bill, at least to his knowledge. United Auto Workers lobbyists pushed for it, but Ford seems to have one foot out the door, not particularly needing Missouri to adopt the bill.

The bill now awaits House passage and a signature from Nixon.

I did not ask Purgason about any plans for retribution, though, if it were me, that notion would be in the front of my mind. Shields did not reply to a request for comment, which, in all fairness, was only made this afternoon.

In a few years, it may be water under the bridge: after working together for years, both Purgason and Shields will be out of the legislature under to Missouri's eight-year Senate term limits. Purgason will be gone, whether he wins a U.S. Senate seat or not, in two years.

There are power moves, and there are power moves. This was the latter. It's not something we typically see in the U.S. Senate...but there would certainly be a commotion if anything like it happened.