Laborers’ O’Sullivan warns of privatizing Lambert Airport

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ST. LOUIS City officials are exploring the possibility of privatizing management at Lambert International Airport. The Trump administration is pushing for more private financing of infrastructure, something they call “asset recycling.”

Who really benefits?

By TIM ROWDEN
Editor

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch recently reported city leaders are selecting an “advisory team” as they weigh whether to move forward with privatizing management at St. Louis Lambert International Airport.

The Trump administration is pushing for more private financing of infrastructure, and has proposed a federal bonus for local and state governments that sell or lease assets like roads and airports. They call it “asset recycling.”

“The bigger the thing you privatize, the more money we’ll give you,” said Gary Cohn, director of Trump’s National Economic Council and former president of Goldman Sachs.

Terry O’Sullivan, general president of the Laborers International Union of North America, offered a working person’s definition of asset recycling when he visited Laborers Local 42 in St. Louis in July.

“Asset recycling is for cities and states and municipalities to sell their infrastructure,” O’Sullivan said. “I’m not talking about a public-private partnership, that’s a little different. Asset recycling is you sell that asset. The federal government incentivizes you to sell it. If we sell it for a billion dollars, the federal government will give you another 15 percent on top of that, and then you’re responsible for rebuilding your infrastructure.

“I don’t’ know about you, but I don’t think it’s a very damned good idea to be selling our infrastructure,” O’Sullivan said. “When we own something, we own it. And I don’t’ think asset recycling is a good thing for us.

“Where our rates prevail, laborers are making what’s in our collective bargaining agreements. With public-private partnerships, not necessarily,” O’Sullivan said. “And with asset recycling, hell, we don’t know.”

WHO WOULD IT BENEFIT?

To be clear, city officials are not exploring the possibility of selling Lambert airport, only leasing it.

One hint at who that would benefit can be found in the city’s application process.

When the City filed an application to the Federal Aviation Administration in March to explore the possibility of joining the agency’s Airport Privatization Pilot Program, Grow Missouri, Inc., the group funded by St. Louis financier and political mega-donor Rex Sinquefield, paid for the application.

After spending millions of dollars on elections and ballot initiatives to try to abolish state and local income taxes with no success, privatizing the airport to bring new revenue into the city’s coffers could provide just the leverage he needs to do away with the city’s earnings tax.

GRAB FOR CASH AND POWER

“Selling off infrastructure is often a grab for cash and power, and has a lot to do with cutting taxes for the rich,” says Donald Cohen, founder and executive director of In the Public Interest, a national resource and policy center advocating for the democratic control of public goods and services.

In an article for the Huffington Post, Cohen wrote: “Corporate America and Wall Street recognize the value of public assets like roads, airports, and water systems to a healthy society and growing economy. But they don’t want to pay for them – no, they want to profit off of them.”

Proponents say a lease agreement at Lambert would increase efficiency and allow the city to collect millions of dollars to use on other services.

Under the program, the city could lease the airport and its operations but would retain ownership rights.

Jeff Rainford, former chief of staff for Krewson’s predecessor, Mayor Francis Slay, registered as a lobbyist in June for STL Aviation Group LLC, a company owned by OakTree Capital Management, a Los Angeles-based investment firm that has hired Missouri-based lobbyists to influence the powers that be at City Hall on the issue. Another is the Macquarie Group, an Australian financial firm that D.J. Gribbin, Trump’s infrastructure advisor, used to work for.

 ‘OPEN AND TRANSPARENT,’ KEEPING COLLECTIVE
BARGAINING BARGAINING AGREEMENTS INTACT

St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson and Aldermanic President Lewis Reed have issued a joint press release announcing a request for proposals.

The city’s statement on the RFP process said any lease would need to result in improved airport services, adhere to city policies on minority-and-women-owned business participation, and keep collective bargaining agreements intact.

“This process needs to be open and transparent,” Krewson said in the release. “Any consultant or advisor working for the city on this project will not be allowed to participate with any group bidding on this project.”

Moving forward, a five-member panel — with one representative each from Krewson, Reed and Comptroller Darlene Green’s offices, and two from the counselor’s office — will select the advisory team members, with a decision on the panel’s membership expected in October.

Krewson was quick to point out that appointing an advisory committee does not mean the city is going ahead with the project.

“This is the next step in the process,” she said. “We will continue to explore this option as long as it makes sense for the taxpayers of St. Louis City.”

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