, , , , , ,

Two days ago (6/14) St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson published a guest column in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch entitled “Turning our airport into a stronger reagional asset.” It was all sweet nothings and tippy toes. Sweet words because the spectre of privatization, first raised by Krewson’s mentor, Mayor Slay, has properly raised hackles elsewhere in city government. As St. Louis Comptroller put it:

… . Currently, the airport is in a strong financial position showing 31 straight months of passenger growth, two credit-rating upgrades, and added international flights.

Privatization would disrupt this growth. Our airport is an asset for the city, and a private entity beholden to shareowners, not consumers, would put bottom-line profit over public service.

But clearly Mayor Krewson has  her eye on a bigger prize for cash-strapped St. Louis since she writes that “this proposal could result in new revenue, potentially hundreds of millions of dollars. We could use that revenue to provide better city services across the board, without raising taxes.” It’s hard to deny that St. Louis is in a hard place right now – but the problem isn’t the airport so one wonders why the airport has to provide the solution. Selling the family jewels in order to buy bread is hardly a “win-win,” just more evidence that the region is on a downward trajectory.

It’s interesting that Krewson mentions the hoped-for financial windfall only after asserting that contracting with a “private entity” to oversee the management and operation at the airport would open the door to “innovation” and improved services. She’s also emphatic that the airport itself would not be sold to private interests, only leased, and she’s at great pains to assure us that care is being taken to be sure that the city’s and the region’s interests will not be sacrificed.

To this end she notes that a study of the advantages and disadvantages has been commissioned and she lists several of the “broad range of […] experts” that have been engaged to carry it out. And it is at this point that my sleepy hackles went up: Krewson, hoping to tip the scales just a little more heavily in the direction of the careful process she wants us to believe she has engendered notes that this study will cost the city nothing. Nothing at all. It will be paid for by one of that group of “experts,” Grow Missouri, a local nonprofit that is providing funding for all of the work leading up to the signing of a potential lease.”

What Krewson conveniently omits – at least I didn’t notice it at first – is that Grow Missouri, which, given its financial commitment to underwrite the effort, is a significant stakeholder in the process, is also affiliated with funded by local rightwing billionaire Rex Sinquefield‘s. Show-Me-Institute, a “think-tank” that commits “studies” that studiously confirm Sinquefield’s druthers. It looks like old Mr. Privatizer, megabucks Rex Sinquefield, will continue in his efforts to get government out of government, Lambert representing one more can that can be knocked down. Am I wrong? Can we expect transparency in a process funded by folks who start with a firm agenda to arrive at a pre-determined answer?

Alderman Cara Spencer agrees that the study-group might not be as kosher as Krewson suggests, and also notes that the study group does not include an important stakeholder, further suggesting that it represents an effort to stack the deck:

She said in an interview that there had been a lack of transparency from the start and that the consultants had an incentive to push for a privatization deal because they’d be paid only if one was lined up. “Their incentive is to say yes,” she said.

She also criticized the selection of the Sinquefield-related firm to continue guiding a process that it started. Moreover, she complained that Airport Director Rhonda Hamm-Niebruegge wasn’t part of the committee. “I find the lack of inclusion of the airport director really alarming, quite frankly,” Spencer said.

I initially felt a little suspicious of the careful cooking process that Krewson accorded her oh-so tasty argument in her op-ed, but after taking the final product in, I’ve got to admit, I’m feeling a little sick to my stomach. A teaspoon of sugar might make the “medicine go down,” but too much saccharin has the opposite effect. So much for the sweet words and tippy toes.

It also might not hurt to take a look at a Congressional Research Service Report that notes that, of the two applicants to take advantage of an Airport Privatization Pilot Program authorized in 1996, only one remains in private hands. Among the reasons for the failure of the pilot to recruit more participants and to demonstrate success was the level of regulation that such a monopoly would be subjected to – many of which constitute just those fiduciary and service protections that Krewson promises.

But, hey, it’s Trump (and Sinquefield) time, the day of the almighty buck. With any luck most of those protections will be re-regulated away.

Addendum 1: I misspoke when I noted that Grow Missouri is affiliated with the Show-Me-Institute. My apologies for not checking my sources more carefully. The situation is even worse, however, than such an affiliation would have suggested. Grow Missouri is, in fact, just another one of those of the myriad entities heavily or entirely funded directly by Rex Sinquefield (to the tune of $2.5 million in 2014 alone) in order to realize his political and ideological inclinations.

Additionally, according to a February report in the STL Post-Dispatch, Sinquefield also paid “the city’s application to the Federal Aviation Administration’s privatization pilot program, and is paying the consultants.” Oddly, given Krewson’s statement that the study will cost the city nada, the same report states that he “will be reimbursed.”  An even earlier January Post-Dispatch report contains the following assertions: “the firms would be paid only out of the proceeds of any privatization deal that ends up being worked out, city officials said. […]  Grow Missouri, the Sinquefield-funded nonprofit, would be paid only to reimburse any out-of-pocket payments it makes to the McKenna and Moelis firms and to any other contractors hired by Grow Missouri.” So what’s the story?

Addendum 2: Want even more on the “fix” that may be in process? A joint letter to the editor of the Post-Dispatch (6/17) from State Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal and State Rep. Courtney Allen Curtis present pertinent arguments that County residents have little say in the issue although they have paid the heaviest price for airport improvements in the past and are likely to do so again once the private industry profit motive is allowed fuller reign.

State Sen. Jamilah Nasheed  also published a letter today (6/17) noting that the issue must to be discussed publicly and  not turned over to a group of “consultants” who, “far from being an objective group, […] would be paid millions of dollars if the airport is privatized.”