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Higher ed bond decision delayed

March 10, 2004
By: Alex Yalen
State Capital Bureau
Links: SB 1221, SB 1305

JEFFERSON CITY -- The fate of hundreds of millions of dollars in higher education construction money won't be decided for at least another two weeks.

The Senate Appropriations Committee decided Wednesday that they needed more time to review the projects in question. Most of the projects, including a renovation to the engineering building on the MU campus and the construction of a major life-science research center, involve the UM system.

"This project list is as amorphous as jello," said Pat Dougherty, D-St. Louis City.

The bond, now requesting a $350 million bond issue that includes various debt-service provisions, may have hit some political hot water.

At the heart of the controversy was whether or not the projects met the requirements of the original bonding bill. That bill made a "life sciences" mission a prerequisite for receiving any funds from the bond.

But in the bill heard this afternoon, projects as varied as cosmetic building touch-ups to complete laboratory renovations were heard, raising concerns from some senators that the intent of the bond was being obscured by local interests.

The original bond proposal included projects for the University of Missouri system campuses only. But the bill heard today included schools from across the state, like Harris-Stowe State College, Linn State Technical College and others.

"If I've ever seen a statewide pork-barrel list, this is it," said Sen. Wayne Goode, D-St. Louis County. "You pick something here, you want something there, just find something to plug in. I'm not sure that's the way we should do business."

Later in the meeting, however, Goode also argued that the St. Louis metropolitan area ought to receive a greater proportion of the bond because of its economic generation for the state.

Shifting funds around to various projects was also a concern for Sen. Doyle Childers, R-Reeds Spring, who said he wanted to make sure that legislators could not change funding priorities later in the process.

"I want to see this bill written to prevent someone from moving this money around to satisfy some constituents," he said.

Sen. John Russell, R-Lebanon, said one of the key reasons for delaying action on the bill in the afternoon meeting was to allow people to gain some perspective on the legislation.

"We have a real political problem," he said. "We're dealing with regional pride, pride of the universities, and the pride of schools that aren't universities. This gives everyone a little bit of time to reflect."

Meanwhile, the Coordinating Board of Higher Education will have to spend the next few weeks determining if the projects on the list -- now up to 14 -- are relevant to what the bonding bill originally asked schools to consider. Board President Quentin Wilson said that 50 percent of the projects in question had never been reviewed by the CBHE before.

Specifically, the state panel will be looking at the mission of the school in question, the economic impact of their project, how it affects the local workforce, the ability of the school to provide local funding, time frame of the construction project, and its relevance to the life sciences.

"These are important needs and projects," said CBHE Commissioner Quentin Wilson. "The questions raised are important too."

The bond issue was initially proposed as part of a deal to end a filibuster by Sen. Ken Jacob, D-Columbia, against a bill that would have changed the name of Southwest Missouri State University to Missouri State University.