Southeast Missouri State University regents facing fire from a powerful local lawmaker found an ally Wednesday in State Auditor Claire McCaskill, who supported the River Campus project and challenged Gov. Matt Blunt to fund it.
The university bond issue to cover a funding shortfall for the project was a prudent choice, McCaskill said at a news conference in front of the construction site on Good Hope Street.
McCaskill said Blunt could find $17 million for the project from the state general revenue surplus. Southeast Missouri State University wants the state to supply that amount in order to avoid raising student fees to pay off the debt.
McCaskill also denounced House Speaker Rod Jetton for his attempt to force out three Southeast regents over the River Campus bonds.
Jetton, R-Marble Hill, told Southeast president Dr. Ken Dobbins he would not support funding for the River Campus project unless the regents resigned.
"It is inappropriate for any legislative leader to try to control an independent governing body in the state," McCaskill said. "The idea that a legislative leader has threatened the board of regents and asked these three people to step down is unbelievable."
The state surplus in the current year will be approximately $245 million, McCaskill said.
"Why not fund this project out of the surplus? There is no reason MOHELA should be necessary," she said.
Blunt is looking to MOHELA, or the Missouri Higher Education Loan Authority, as a way to fund $450 million worth of higher education projects around the state. To raise the money, the MOHELA board plans to sell a portion of its loan portfolio and turn a portion of the proceeds over to the state treasury.
Blunt did not include the River Campus in the original list of projects and programs that would be funded by the MOHELA proceeds. During a news conference Wednesday at the Cape Girardeau Regional Airport, Blunt said McCaskill is wrong about the size of the surplus and whether the claims on the money allow for its use for the River Campus.
"It is a good project, and it makes sense for us to fund it," Blunt said.
As state auditor, McCaskill said it is her duty to make sure tax dollars are spent wisely. McCaskill said increasing student's tuition is not the way to raise the remainder of the funds.
"We should be embarrassed of how high it is to go to college in Missouri," she said.
While expressing support for the River Campus, Blunt said the surplus isn't the place to find money. Any extra money the state has this year is already pledged for the coming year, he said, including the $17 million increase he has proposed for operations of state colleges and universities.
The surplus is between $100 and $150 million, Blunt said. "The surplus is essentially spent. And I don't know if I should be debating this with Claire McCaskill."
McCaskill was Blunt's Democratic foe in the 2004 governor's race. She is a candidate for the U.S. Senate seat currently held by Republican Jim Talent.
Blunt wants to use the MOHELA funding to promote medical and life science research and teaching under what he calls "The Lewis and Clark Discovery Initiative." His original plan included $5 million for Southeast to pay for a life sciences building.
During the news conference Wednesday, Blunt said the River Campus could find a home in his plan. "The River Campus and the life sciences center can be a part of that," he said.
Construction costs for the River Campus, which will house a fine arts school, are projected at $38 million. Engineering and architectural work as well as the cost of furnishings will push the price tag to nearly $50 million.
The costs so far have been shared by federal, state and local taxpayers as well as private donors. Southeast issued bonds to cover the difference between pledges and costs.
"This project hits on all four cylinders of this community -- more jobs, historic preservation, promoting higher education and leveraging private and public dollars," McCaskill said.
The support from Blunt Wednesday is one of the strongest statements he has made indicating he intends to help the university pay its bonds. Soon after Jetton made his demand, Blunt responded in support of the regents' independence.
Blunt's original proposal for spending the MOHELA money didn't gain an enthusiastic response from his fellow Republicans in House. They have an alternative spending plan that reportedly contains nothing for Southeast. Blunt said that is likely to change.
"Legislative opposition is dissipating," he said.
McCaskill, however, said she isn't so sure. "For the past two weeks I've been puzzled over this controversy surrounding the funding of the River Campus," McCaskill said. "I have waited in vain for area legislative representatives to speak out in favor for this project."
State Sen. Jason Crowell, R-Cape Girardeau, did just that on Tuesday, sending a letter to each member of the Senate Appropriations Committee asking them to support the River Campus as MOHELA money is debated.
The letter was an attempt to clarify Crowell's stance.
The River Campus project didn't make the governor's list because Crowell didn't back it in a meeting with the governor, Blunt spokesman Spence Jackson has said.
Crowell has said that was a misunderstanding and that he will work to get $17.2 million in state funding for the ongoing project.
Crowell was joined by Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder, a Cape Girardeau resident, in signing the letter.
"I have been consistent in my support of the River Campus from the time of being elected to public office and have worked hard in the past to provide funding for it at the state level," Crowell said. "We decided we wanted to send the letter to the Appropriations Committee affirming my position."
Jetton, meanwhile, remains firm that the River Campus bonds were a mistake and that the campus administration needs to admit it was wrong before he will work to help pay off the bonds.
"Until they admit they sold the revenue bonds without getting an approved revenue stream, we can't soften our position," Jetton said.
335-6611, extension 246
335-6611, extension 126