River Campus: State funding hinges on rest-stop cell call

Friday, March 31, 2006

The on-again, off-again funding for the River Campus project is back on track after state Sen. Jason Crowell orchestrated an evening conference call from his cell phone while parked at an Interstate 70 rest stop.

The latest crisis for the beleaguered project began when Sen. Chuck Gross, R-St. Charles, introduced an appropriations bill Thursday afternoon that called for spending an estimated $448 million from the expected sale of student loans.

The bill earmarked money for campus construction projects and funding for students going into health-care jobs, but didn't include any funding for the River Campus arts school project even though Crowell and Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder had asked Gross to include $17.2 million for the riverfront development.

Crowell was driving home to Cape Girardeau Thursday afternoon when he learned that Gross' bill didn't include funding for the River Campus.

The news surprised Crowell. "I was caught off guard by the introduction of the bill," he said Thursday night.

He phoned the bad news to university president Dr. Ken Dobbins, Mayor Jay Knudtson and Cape Girardeau Chamber of Commerce president John Mehner.

Then he phoned Gross, the Senate appropriations chairman. Gross temporarily halted an evening meeting of his committee in Jefferson City to have a conference call with Crowell and Senate President Pro Tem Michael Gibbons, R-Kirkwood.

Crowell said he pulled over and parked his car at an I-70 rest stop while he conferred on the phone with Gross and Gibbons.

Gross, Crowell said, told him that the River Campus project was left off the funding list by mistake.

"He said it was a total oversight," said Crowell.

"We have fixed it," Crowell said, adding that Gross has promised to introduce new or substitute legislation to include funding for the River Campus.

Crowell said the project has his backing as well as Senate and House leaders, including House Speaker Rod Jetton. Project supporters also include Gov. Matt Blunt and Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder, both of whom wrote letters to the Senate urging funding for the project.

Crowell also wrote a letter of support. In the March 16 letter to Gross, Crowell said the university "has acknowledged their error" in issuing bonds without state funding in place. He urged Gross to include the project in the state funding package.

"We are very pleased," said Dobbins after he learned of the change of events from a reporter late Thursday night.

Crowell said he doesn't know what revisions, if any, might be made in the spending package now that the River Campus project will be added to the list of projects.

Besides a wide range of campus projects around the state, the Senate plan would include $65.9 million for health centers in Missouri which largely serve Medicare and Medicaid patients; $55 million for scholarships for medical, dental and nursing students; and $2.6 million for wellness programs in Missouri's school districts.

Crowell said any final plan on how to spend an expected $450 million from the sale of Missouri Higher Education Loan Authority loans will involve a compromise over the Senate plan, the governor's plan and a House measure that's still being crafted.

"It is my belief that we will be able to move forward with the River Campus project," said Crowell.

Amid all the legislative maneuvers this year -- which at one time included a demand by Jetton that three members resign from the university's board of regents over Southeast's bond financing scheme for the project -- construction continues to turn a former Catholic seminary in Cape Girardeau into a visual and performing arts school.

The project is expected to cost about $50 million, including $8.9 million from the city and $11 million in private donations raised by the university foundation. Federal funds have provided another $7 million.

The state so far has appropriated $4.6 million. If the state earmarks another $17. 2 million, it will bring the state's share of the cost to nearly $22 million. The state money will go to help pay off bond debt incurred by the university to finance construction.

Without state funding, Dobbins said the university would have to raise student fees. Jetton said in February that state funding for the project was unlikely unless included as part of the MoHELA plan.

The River Campus is scheduled to open in August 2007.

mbliss@semissourian.com

335-6611, ext. 123

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