Mo. Senate breaks from debate on higher ed bill

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) -- A 15-hour, all-night Senate session ended late Tuesday morning so groggy lawmakers could rethink their strategies in a contentious and deadlocked debate over a higher education bill backed by Republican Gov. Matt Blunt.

Several Democratic senators had combined efforts to keep the Senate from voting on a bill that would lay the foundation for Blunt's plan to take $350 million from the Missouri Higher Education Loan Authority for college building projects around the state.

The measure also creates a new scholarship program, caps tuition increases and requires performance-based criteria to be developed for higher education institutions.

Senators began debate at 8 p.m. Monday night and didn't break until 11 a.m. Tuesday.

"The Democrats are well organized; they're taking shifts" on their filibuster and "our Republican caucus is equally motivated," said Senate Majority Leader Charlie Shields, R-St. Joseph. "It probably makes sense to step back and see if there are areas of compromise."

Republican and Democratic senators each planned to meet in private caucuses Tuesday before the Senate was scheduled to reconvene at 2 p.m.

Blunt's college construction plan already has undergone numerous changes since he first proposed more than a year ago to sell some assets of Missouri's student loan agency to finance his initiative.

The latest version of Blunt's plan would grant MOHELA specific legal authority to put money into a newly created state fund. Legislators would then appropriate that money for college and university projects through a separate budget bill.

Some opponents worry that siphoning money from MOHELA could affect its long-term ability to offer low interest rates and loan forgiveness programs.

Some opponents of embryonic stem cell research were worried the money would be used on buildings where such research would be conducted. To appease those concerns, Blunt's administration revised the project list last week to eliminate buildings that could have housed medical research. They were replaced largely by more agricultural projects.

But Missouri Right to Life, the state's largest anti-abortion organization, has lobbied against such research and remains opposed to the plan.

Meanwhile, other critics oppose the shift in focus away from life sciences projects.

"We're not on the high road of what's going to lead this state forward," said Sen. Chuck Graham, D-Columbia. "We were moving forward and then all a sudden we just screeched on the brakes."

Blunt's administration claims the revamped bill now can pass the Senate. Notably, some Republicans who oppose such stem cell research stayed quiet as Democrats criticized the bill Monday and Tuesday.

"If we have such a true treasure with MOHELA, then we've got to use that money for the most important asset in education -- that's the students," said Sen. Jolie Justus, D-Kansas City.

Some members dozed on the Senate floor and some stole away to their offices, while others paced the halls and splashed water on their faces to stay alert. House Speaker Rod Jetton popped in about 2:30 a.m. to check on the bill's progress.

The legislation also would limit university tuition increases. Schools whose tuition already is higher than average could raise tuition by no more than the rate of inflation, unless granted an exception from state higher education officials. Schools whose tuition rates are below average could raise tuition by slightly more.

Sen. Tim Green, D-St. Louis, proposed a failed amendment that would instead have limited tuition increases to 1 percent.

The bill also would combine the state's two main financial-needs-based scholarships into one, called the Access Missouri Financial Assistance Program. Separate budget legislation would sizably increase the amount the state spends on such scholarships.

Another prong of the bill would require the state Department of Higher Education to set five performance standards for universities -- three statewide measures and two that vary by institution. Lawmakers then could consider how well schools fared when setting their state funding.

Associated Press Correspondent David A. Lieb contributed to this report.

Higher ed bill is SB389.

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