Superproject legislation advances in House


LITTLE ROCK — Legislation containing a package of state incentives for a proposed $1.1 billion steel mill in northeastern Arkansas continued to move through the Legislature on Wednesday.

The House Committee on Agriculture, Forestry and Economic Development endorsed House Bill 1870 and sent it to the full House. The measure by Rep. Monte Hodges, D-Blytheville, is identical to Senate Bill 870, which passed the Senate on Tuesday.

Both lay out the terms and conditions of a deal that calls for the state to float a $125 million bond issue and provide tax credits and other incentives to the project that principles say will bring more than 500 jobs to Mississippi County with salaries averaging $70,000 a year.

Under the measures, the mill would have to be producing steel by the spring of 2016 to qualify for the incentives and its managers would have to report annually that the facility is maintaining that and other requirements to keep them.

The bond issue requires legislative approval under Amendment 82, the so-called superproject amendment approved by voters in 2004, and would allow for lower financing rates for a $50 million loan and $75 million in grants and incentives to begin the infrastructure for the project.

Rep. Matthew Shepherd, R-El Dorado, the House committee’s chairman, asked Grant Tennille, director of the state Economic Development Commission, if he was satisfied with the level of risk involved in the project. Tennille said he was — and noted that he is putting his reputation on the line.

“My big fear is that I’ll spend the rest of my life walking through crowded places like Kroger and having people whisper behind my back, ‘There goes the guy that got took for all that money by those steel guys,’” Tennille said. “I’ve done everything I know how to do and have talked to people a lot smarter than I am about how to protect the state. I think this is the right deal; I think it’s got the right protections in it.”

Sam Commella, vice president of Nucor Steel, also in Mississippi County, repeated arguments he has made previously against the project, including the claim that the market would not support both plants.

John Correnti, CEO of Big River Steel, said his company’s plant would have an annual production of 1.7 million tons, which he said was too small an amount to have much impact on Nucor. Nucor produced 20 million tons of steel last year, according to Commella.

“This is not a debate about Nucor and Big River Steel to me,” Hodges told the committee. “This is about me canvassing back when I ran for state representative and the number of young men and women that came up to me saying that they needed jobs.”

The committee approved HB 1870 on a voice vote in which at least two “no” votes were heard.