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Southeast, Jetton settle differences on funding

Saturday, February 25, 2006

The House speaker will seek state funding to help retire bonds; Southeast promises not to issue bonds again when such funding is not yet in place.

Missouri House Speaker Rod Jetton and Southeast Missouri State University settled their differences Friday over state funding for the River Campus arts school project.

At a news conference at the River Campus construction site in Cape Girardeau, Jetton, R-Marble Hill, Mo., said he would support state funding for the project to help retire bonds that provided the upfront money for the development.

Following the joint news conference with Southeast president Dr. Ken Dobbins, Jetton said he would work to include the project among campus projects around the state that would be funded with revenue from the proposed sale of Missouri Higher Education Loan Authority student loans.

In exchange for his support, the university agreed it won't engage in any similar bond funding plan in the future. Dobbins said the university's regents will enact a policy this spring that would prohibit the school from proceeding with bond financing for campus projects in which state funding is needed but yet to be granted for retiring the bonds.

The university also will support legislation by state Sen. Jason Crowell that would bar the Missouri Development Finance Board -- the agency that handled the River Campus bonds -- from issuing bonds for projects that depend upon state funding that hasn't been approved by lawmakers.

Crowell, R-Cape Girardeau, didn't attend the news conference.

'No cloud over the project'

Cape Girardeau Mayor Jay Knudtson announced the end of the controversy. "We will move forward with no cloud over the project," he told the crowd of about 50 university, city and civic leaders who showed up to celebrate the news.

Knudtson helped broker the deal in separate discussions with Jetton and Dobbins.

"We had to lay out a plan that allowed all parties to hold their heads high," the mayor said.

The agreement ends a dispute that played out in the news media for the past several weeks and angered those on both sides of the controversy.

On Feb. 8, Jetton announced he wouldn't support state funding for the River Campus arts school project unless three Southeast regents resigned.

Jetton said the university acted irresponsibly in proceeding with the issuance of $36 million in bonds through the Missouri Development Finance Board in 2003 when state funding wasn't in place to help retire those bonds.

The three regents -- John Tlapek of Cape Girardeau, Brad Bedell of Sikeston, Mo., and Gail Rosmarin of Poplar Bluff, Mo. -- were on the board when the decision was made to issue bonds.

Southeast officials defended the move as necessary to move ahead with the project and keep construction costs down.

As part of the resolution of the dispute, Dobbins submitted a letter to Jetton on behalf of the board of regents. The letter publicly states the university won't follow the same financing plan on any future campus construction project.

"In retrospect, we recognize that the issuance of these bonds prior to final state funding may have put you and the current House leadership in an awkward position for which the university apologizes," the school president wrote.

Jetton said, "This has been a very troubling issue."

The House speaker said he understands the university's decision to proceed with issuance of bonds to avoid delay and keep construction costs down.

But he said state government can't afford to operate that way. He said Dobbins' letter sends a clear message to Missouri's other state colleges regarding financing of campus building projects.

Jetton announced his support for the River Campus project on the same day that his daughter, Callie, attended an orientation session at Southeast, where she will be a freshman this fall.

"I definitely don't want her student fees to go up," Jetton said, a reference to the fact that school officials said they would have to raise student fees if they couldn't secure $17.2 million in state funding for the River Campus project.

Following the news conference, Dobbins said he's optimistic that Jetton's support will lead lawmakers to appropriate the state funding this legislative session.


335-6611, extension 123

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