Officials skip chance to consider MOHELA in special session

Monday, September 18, 2006

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- To Gov. Matt Blunt, it's critical for the state to act as quickly as possible to enact his $350 million college construction plan financed through student loan agency profits.

Not only are the buildings badly needed -- for the sake of students, researchers and the economy, he says -- but every day of delay adds an extra $70,000 to their cost.

Yet there's Attorney General Jay Nixon, trying to stand in Blunt's way, with a variety of concerns -- including the assertion Blunt's plan is illegal under the state law that created the Missouri Higher Education Loan Authority 25 years ago.

That law says MOHELA's purpose is to ensure colleges students have access to loans. The quasi-governmental agency can issue bonds to finance those loans, but it isn't supposed to use those revenues for anything outside its purpose.

"If they want to do this, they should change the law," Nixon said.

Attorneys hired by Blunt and MOHELA contend their proposed contract is legally sound, because in exchange for its $350 million, MOHELA would get benefits they say would ensure its continued ability to underwrite student loans.

That includes an 11-year pledge of $1.1 billion to $1.8 billion in tax-exempt bonding authority; a commitment by the University of Missouri to consider more use of MOHELA loans; and the Blunt administration's support for legislation expanding MOHELA's power to initiate loans.

Their confidence aside, it would seem for the sake of quieting Nixon and nixing potential lawsuits that supporters might nonetheless want to amend the law governing MOHELA's purpose to specifically allow transfers of MOHELA money for college buildings.

And considering the MOHELA board is scheduled to vote on Blunt's plan Sept. 27, it would have seemed that last week's annual veto session would have been a fine time for a lawmakers -- already at the Capitol -- to make that change in a special legislative session.

Yet Blunt did not call a special session. And lawmakers made no attempt to call themselves into session for that purpose.

So why not?

Blunt, ever confident, insists it simply was not necessary.

"I don't believe there are legitimate legal objections to this," said the Republican governor, dismissing the concerns of the Democratic attorney general, who is raising money for his own potential gubernatorial bid in 2008.

Senate President Pro Tem Michael Gibbons, R-Kirkwood, offers a similar response, noting that the bond law firm of Gilmore & Bell believes the proposal is legal.

David Queen, the attorney who provided the legal backing for Blunt, contributed $1,200 to Blunt last summer and also gave to his campaign in 2004 and 2003. But Queen also has contributed to Nixon, as well as to Democrats Bob Holden and Claire McCaskill in the not-so-distant past. Other attorneys at Gilmore & Bell also have given to candidates of both parties.

Gibbons puts a lot of stock in the firm's word.

"They are not in a position to in any way shade any factor whatsoever," he said, "because if they lose their reputation, they've just lost their business. Everything's dependent on them being right."

House Speaker Rod Jetton, R-Marble Hill, believes his chamber would have voted overwhelmingly to change the statute governing MOHELA's purpose had Blunt called a special session.

But that vote could have brought up an uncomfortable election year debate for majority-party Republicans.

During the regular session, certain Republicans and Democrats took every chance they could to propose amendments restricting the use of MOHELA money going to colleges from benefiting a certain form of embryonic stem cell research that uses cloning.

If MOHELA legislation were to again come before lawmakers, "I would think the same thing would happen," said cloning opponent Rep. Jim Lembke, R-St. Louis. "There would be an attempt to use that restrictive language in statute and attach it to MOHELA."

That probably would not have been a desirable discussion for a Republican Party whose members already are divided over a November ballot measure allowing such research -- or for Blunt, a supporter of the research.

But Blunt said there was no connection between a potential stem cell debate and his decision not to call a special session on the MOHELA plan.

Had the House been able to pass a bill changing MOHELA's statutes in a special session, it still likely would have encountered a filibuster from Senate Democrats such as Victor Callahan, of Independence, and Joan Bray, of St. Louis. They're opposed to the plan not only on legal grounds, but because they consider it bad public policy.

A quick special session couldn't satisfy their concerns, the senators said. They would like a full public -- and legislative -- hearing, the type that would occur in the 4 1/2-month regular session.

From all this, one thing seems clear. There was very little political will for a special session to change MOHELA's statutory purposes to specifically include Blunt's plan. And where there's no will, there's no way.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Capitol Correspondent David A. Lieb covers Missouri government and politics for The Associated Press.

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