Big River Steel Proposal Gains Traction in Legislature

by Michael Stratford, The Associated Press  on Monday, Apr. 1, 2013 10:14 am  

LITTLE ROCK - Gov. Mike Beebe's plan to provide $125 million in state financing to help a new company build a steel mill in Mississippi County is gaining bipartisan support among legislators — though some conservatives still object to having the government help fund one of Arkansas' largest economic development projects.

Beebe's proposal received a significant boost last week when leaders of the Republican-controlled Legislature expressed support for Big River Steel's plan to construct a $1.1 billion mill along the Mississippi River in Osceola.

But opponents have also emerged, and as committee votes approach this week it is not clear whether state funds will back the project. A conservative political action group and an existing steel company each have mounted campaigns against Beebe's plan.

A pair of legislators from Mississippi County — Sen. David Burnett, D-Osceola, and Rep. Monte Hodges, D-Blytheville — say Arkansas cannot afford to lose a steel mill that is expected to create at least 525 jobs paying an average annual salary of $75,000.

"This would change lives tremendously, not just in Mississippi County, but in the surrounding areas where people will commute for these jobs," Hodges said. "There will be satellite business that spring forward because of Big River. It's going to be a ripple effect."

Senate President Michael Lamoureux, R-Russellville, and House Speaker Davy Carter, R-Cabot, said they would support the project because they were satisfied that the potential benefits outweighed the risks.

"There's always risk in anything you do, and nobody is saying this is fail-safe," Carter said. Mississippi County, he said, is on the down side of a boom-and-bust cycle.

"This is a part of the state that was thriving for a long time, and things over the past few decades have gone the other way," he said. "The rest of the state needs to keep that on their mind when we debate this."

Democrats also generally support the project, said House Minority Leader Greg Leding.

But the proposal to offer loans, subsidies, and tax breaks to a newly formed company has conservatives describing the plan as a government "hand-out" that would siphon public resources from elsewhere.

One influential conservative group — incidentally, one with ties to one of Big River Steel's largest investors — is telling lawmakers to reject the project.

The Arkansas chapter of Americans for Prosperity — the group founded by billionaire energy executives Charles and David Koch — sent emails to lawmakers last month saying the project "puts Arkansas tax dollars at risk and increases the state's outstanding debt obligations."



Please read our comments policy before commenting.