Politicians point fingers over River Campus issue

Friday, February 10, 2006

Governor's office says Crowell didn't support River Campus project in meeting with governor. Crowell said that wasn't his intent.

The River Campus project didn't make Gov. Matt Blunt's list of proposed college construction projects because state Sen. Jason Crowell didn't back it, the governor's spokesman said Thursday.

At a Jan. 19 meeting in the governor's office at the state capitol, Blunt asked Crowell if the River Campus should be included in a list of projects that would be funded with the sale of Missouri Higher Education Loan Authority student loans, said the governor's spokesman, Spence Jackson.

Crowell didn't express support for the project, Jackson said. "He didn't advocate adding the project to the list," Jackson said.

Blunt told Crowell he wouldn't include the River Campus project in the funding plan without the senator's support, Jackson said.

Crowell said Thursday he never intended to convey the impression that he opposed the River Campus project itself.

At the time, Crowell said, he was concerned about Blunt's plan to liquidate the loan authority.

The MOHELA board, with Blunt's support, later voted to sell $450 million in student loans over the next three and a half years while keeping the authority in business.

"My concerns with the MOHELA deal have been eliminated," Crowell said.

"I am not against the River Campus," the Republican state senator said.

Crowell distanced himself from House Speaker Rod Jetton's demand Wednesday that three Southeast university regents resign as a condition for legislative support for state funding for the River Campus.

"I am not calling for anybody's resignation," he said. "I am not going to tell the university what to do."

Like Jetton, Crowell has concerns about the university's decision to issue bonds to finance the River Campus arts school project before securing all of the state funding that the university was counting on to help retire the bonds.

But he said that won't keep him from lobbying for $17.2 million in state funding for the project now under construction along the Cape Girardeau riverfront.

University officials say that without the state funding, they will have to raise student fees to help pay off the bonds.

Crowell said he doesn't want students saddled with that burden.

Blunt's $450 million higher education spending plan would have allocated $300 million to help finance 20 campus construction projects around the state including $5 million for a life-science research facility for Southeast.

House Republicans, led by Jetton, on Thursday outlined their own spending plan.

The House plan would allocate $165 million for campus construction projects which have yet to be detailed by lawmakers. But local lawmakers say Southeast may be cut out of the funding plan entirely.

The House plan would provide $190 million for endowed scholarships, nearly double the amount proposed by the governor.

"Our top priority is scholarships," said Jetton, R-Marble Hill. "With the higher cost of tuition this is more important than it's ever been," he said.

The House GOP plan also calls for $75 million to go toward reducing the state's debt and $18 million for building maintenance and repairs at Missouri community colleges. Neither of these proposals was in Blunt's plan.

Eliminated from the House plan are Blunt's proposals to direct $20 million to endowed professorships and $5 million to an endowment to entice technology businesses to college campuses.

Blunt's original plan would have required legislative approfval both for the sale of MOHELA and for spending of the proceeds.

But the revised plan doesn't require legislative approval for MOHELA to sell off some but not all of its loans. Lawmakers, however, still would have to decide how the money should be spent.

Some Democrats, including Attorney General Jay Nixon, have raised questions about the legal foundation for the governor's plan.

On Wednesday, Jetton said Southeast financed the River Campus project with bonds without getting prior approval of the state legislature.

But former regent Don Dickerson, who was president of the board when the bond financing was approved by the school in 2003, said the state law allows universities to issue bonds.

He said previous governors and the legislature backed the River Campus project beginning with a state appropriation of $4.6 million in 1999.

The legislature also backed a second appropriation for the project but state budget woes put that funding on hold, Dickerson said.

Within the past several years, lawmakers approved an additional $1,000 to keep the earmarked project in the budget.

Dickerson said the university made no secret of issuing bonds. Lawmakers didn't object, he said.

"We never heard a single objection from anybody," said Dickerson.

Dickerson said the issuance of bonds allowed the university to get started sooner on construction of the River Campus arts school.

"We felt we needed to try to get it built before inflation and materials costs ate us alive," he said.

Dickerson said he's shocked that the governor and legislature wouldn't include funding for the River Campus in any plan to fund campus building projects around the state.

"It is absolutely mind-boggling to see that happen," he said. "I think people need to wake up to the fact that this doesn't make any sense at all."

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

mbliss@semissourian.com

335-6611, ext. 123

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