Support for MOHELA bill qualified

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Area lawmakers are giving qualified support to a Senate bill combining the sale of student loan assets to pay for campus buildings with new restrictions on tuition.

While the complex measure is being worked on privately -- and fought over publicly -- in Jefferson City, Southeast Missouri State University president Ken Dobbins said through an assistant that he doesn't want to upset chances of making the bill more to his liking.

"The darn thing is in such a state of flux, the presidents are working with legislators to make the bill more acceptable to all concerned," said Art Willhausen, Dobbins' assistant. "It would be premature and counterproductive" for Dobbins to comment, he said.

"It is in such a state of change, anything he could say would be detrimental to the whole process."

The measure, sponsored by Sen. Gary Nodler, R-Joplin, wraps up several higher education initiatives that last year fought for attention from lawmakers.

Gov. Matt Blunt is fighting for his Lewis and Clark Discovery Initiative, a plan that uses proceeds from the sale of student loans held by the Missouri Higher Education Loan Authority to pay for campus buildings. The buildings, for the most part, are dedicated to life-sciences teaching, research and business development.

That portion of the bill, which includes almost $22 million for Southeast, is being assailed by Missouri Right to Life, which opposes it because of the potential for embryonic stem-cell research in some of the buildings. While the bill includes restrictions on such research, the group believes they are unconstitutional under Amendment 2 passed in November.

The restrictions are also the source of opposition from many Democrats and some Republicans who support embryonic stem-cell research and who see restrictions as an intrusion into academic freedom.

The bill also caps tuition increases at the inflation rate, gives the Coordinating Board for Higher Education the power to withhold funds from schools that violate the cap, increases the power of the Coordinating Board to settle disputes between schools and expands state student grant programs that are also generating some opposition because they provide larger stipends for students attending private colleges and universities.

The latest source of opposition is being raised in response to an internal MOHELA e-mail from the auditing firm Liscaran Solutions LLC, which had originally endorsed the financial soundness of the deal. Federal legislation altering the student loan program, including interest rate cuts, could undermine the deal, the firm said.

For Rep. Steve Hodges, D-East Prairie, a sound MOHELA providing access to cheap student loans is more important than college buildings. House Democratic leader Jeff Harris of Columbia is opposing the measure because of the new questions about the viability of MOHELA after the sale, Hodges said, and Democrats must be convinced the agency is safe before voting for the bill.

"MOHELA's money is intended to be used for student loans," Hodges said. "If that is what it was intended for, that is what it needs to be used for."

Hodges also said his constituents won't like any bill that doesn't include guarantees that state money isn't being used for embryonic stem-cell research.

Rep. Nathan Cooper, R-Cape Girardeau. is the only House member from the area whose district would include new construction from the MOHELA sale. Southeast will gain $17.2 million to pay off its bonds for the River Campus and $4.5 million for a life-science business incubator.

While the federal changes are cause for some concern, Cooper said, it shouldn't kill the bill. And neither should the dispute over stem-cell restrictions. "No single organization controls how I will cast a vote on any particular issue," Cooper said.

The tuition issues are troubling, he said, but not insurmountable. The caps must be flexible for when state budgets don't keep up with college needs, Cooper said. "In tougher budgetary times, they may need to find those revenues elsewhere. I am for accountability and affordability."

Tuition controls, increased student aid and more oversight from the Coordinating Board make sense to Rep. Scott Lipke, R-Jackson. But Lipke, an opponent of Amendment 2, said the embryonic stem-cell issue should be dealt with strongly in other legislation. "I would prefer we deal more on the MOHELA sale itself and leave some of the peripheral issues separate and apart," Lipke said. "It can be a big benefit to our region and other parts of the state."

State Rep. Ellen Brandom, R-Sikeston, said she's waiting for a bill to be finished in the Senate before taking a stand. "I discovered very quickly not to get too bothered by things that may not materialize," said Brandom, who is in her first term. "I don't want to get too emotional about things that may never hit the floor."

335-6611, extension 126

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