Texas Governor Rick Perry strutted into Illinois this week, hoping to convince employers to move south to the land of no income tax and less government regulation.
The explosion of a fertilizer plant that killed at least 14 people in his home state last week won’t alter his sales pitch. The blast, which leveled part of the town of West, Texas, didn’t stem from an employer-friendly attitude toward regulation, zoning and other strictures, the three-term Republican governor said in an April 22 interview in Chicago.
“There are probably places all across the country where cities have grown up around manufacturing of some form or fashion,” Perry said. “Is the response going to be we’re going to move all of these -- either the business or the residential - - away from these places? And are the people willing to pay that cost?”
Perry preceded his visit with an $80,000 advertising campaign last week that, as one radio ad put it, Illinois businesses ought to “get out while there’s still time.”
While the explosion at Adair Grain Inc.’s West Fertilizer Co. plant, about 80 miles (129 kilometers) south of Dallas, hasn’t been mentioned in blunt rebuttals from Illinois Governor Pat Quinn and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, both Democrats, it provides fresh fodder for the tradition of states trashing each other to attract employers.
“I think his efforts in Illinois will be as successful as his presidential campaign,” said Quinn, 64, calling Perry “a big talker” during a news conference in Springfield, the state capital, the same day as the Adair explosion.
Emanuel offered his own rebuttal April 22, alluding to Perry’s inability during a 2011 presidential debate to remember the trio of federal departments he vowed to eliminate.
“I hope when he comes, he remembers all three of his reasons,” the mayor said. “It’ll be a real test for him.”
The state-versus-state competition is a familiar one, and these two represent distinct portraits. Illinois, with a March unemployment rate of 9.5 percent and the worst-funded pension system among the states, is a Republican talking point among governors like Perry.
Texas, where the jobless figure was 6.4 percent, is portrayed by many conservatives as the ideal business climate and by Democrats as a laissez-faire state of high poverty and low-quality services.
“Cost versus benefit is what we battle with all the time,” Perry said, adding that Texas is a state that “does not believe in over-burdening businesses.”
Since Illinois raised its income-tax rate in 2011 to partially close a budget deficit, the state has been visited by job-poaching Republican governors including New Jersey’s Chris Christie, Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, Indiana’s Mitch Daniels and Oklahoma’s Mary Fallin.
In addition to killing 14 people, the Texas fertilizer-plant blast injured about 200 people and destroyed dozens of buildings, including residences and a nursing home. The force of the blast was felt more than 50 miles away. President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama will attend a memorial service for victims of the blast tomorrow at Baylor University in nearby Waco.
The facility held 270 tons of ammonium nitrate as of Dec. 31, according to state records. The highly explosive chemical is responsible for some of the most deadly industrial accidents and terrorist attacks. Timothy McVeigh used it in 1995 to destroy Oklahoma City’s Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, killing 168 people.
Perry said it would be “a little premature” to reach a conclusion about the cause of the explosion and a course of action. Still, he said it is “stunning” that the loss of life wasn’t greater. “How there were only 14 people who lost their lives is a bit of an amazement to me,” he said, referring to the plant’s proximity to homes and a school.
While the city “grew up around that plant,” Perry said, local zoning regulations may need to be reexamined.
“Is it a legitimate question to ask, ‘Should the city have allowed [housing] to be built there?’ It’s a legitimate question,” he said.
State and federal investigators are trying to determine the cause of the explosion in the town of 2,800 people. Nicola Persico, director of the Kellogg Public Private Initiative at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, said it is “fair to say” there will be more regulation of these facilities as a result of the blast.
“Maybe it will be regulation through zoning instead of inspection, to make sure the plants are located far apart from dwellings,” Persico said.
With assistance from Jack Kaskey in Houston. Editors: Flynn McRoberts, Pete Young