Lawmakers pass Gov. Matt Blunt's $350 million college construction plan

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Lawmakers gave final approval Monday to a $350 million plan to finance college buildings with student loan agency money, delivering a victory to Gov. Matt Blunt after more than a year of political and legal wrangling.

The Republican-led House sent the GOP governor his higher education package on a largely party-line 91-64 vote. The Senate passed the bill last month, 23-11.

But the fight may not be over. A Democratic lawmaker vowed Monday to use a rare citizen petition to try to put the legislation to a statewide vote.

The legislation would take $350 million over six years from the Missouri Higher Education Loan Authority to finance dozens of building projects for public colleges and universities. It also would create a new college scholarship program for students in financial need and place limits on university tuition increases.

Blunt proclaimed it "a historic higher education plan."

"Missouri students from all walks of life will benefit from additional scholarships, more predictable tuition costs and new state-of-the-art learning centers that will give them a competitive edge in the work force," Blunt, who was at a biotechnology conference in Boston, said in a written statement released by his office.

The student loan authority already has sold hundreds of millions of dollars worth of loans made to non-Missourians to start stockpiling the money needed to make the state payments. Loan authority officials believe the payments can be made without affecting the lower interest rates and loan forgiveness programs it now offers to Missouri students.

In exchange for its money, MOHELA would get a 15-year pledge of tax-exempt bonding authority, which it could use to finance the acquisition of new student loans.

But some Democrats claim the buildings are mere pork projects and the loan sell-off could harm future students by financially weakening the student loan agency.

"This is a fiscally irresponsible plan that will jeopardize access to student loans in the state of Missouri," said House Minority Leader Jeff Harris, D-Columbia. "We're gambling on the future of Missouri's students having access to higher education."

Blunt first proposed in January 2006 to sell the student loan agency as a way to fund a university construction plan that focused on life sciences research and high-tech industries. He then embraced an alternative put forth by MOHELA to sell some of its loans while leaving the agency intact.

But that plan failed to passed the legislature last year. So Blunt revised it again and tried to bypass lawmakers. That failed, too, when board members for the loan authority expressed reluctance to enact the plan themselves after Democratic Attorney General Jay Nixon warned they could be sued for violating their fiduciary duties.

Nixon's warning carried weight because he had sued them once already. The student loan agency settled that case in December, acknowledging it had violated Missouri's open meetings law while working on Blunt's plan.

Taking his plan back before the legislature this year, Blunt reshaped it again -- most notably shedding its medical research buildings in favor of agricultural projects in response to concerns that the research buildings potentially could have been used for embryonic stem cell research.

Ultimately, the Republican-led Senate used a rare procedural motion to shut down a prolonged Democratic debate and pass the bill. On Monday, Republican House leaders limited debate to two hours and encouraged members to reject all amendments so the bill could go directly to Blunt.

Not settling for defeat, Rep. Clint Zweifel, D-St. Louis, pledged to pursue a citizen petition to try to refer the legislation to the November 2008 ballot.

Normally, bills that pass both the House and Senate become law after the governor signs them.

But the Missouri Constitution allows legislatively passed bills to be referred to the ballot if people gather petition signatures from 5 percent of the voters in six of the state's nine congressional districts.

The referendum last was used in 1982, when voters rejected a legislatively passed law that would have permitted longer and heavier trucks on Missouri highways.

Zweifel contends the issue has become so political that some lawmakers didn't consider whether it's good public policy, but simply sided with the governor or backed the plan because it would finance buildings in their districts.

"There are two types of people -- people who think this is bad policy and they're voting against it, and people who think it's bad public policy and they're voting for it for political reasons," Zweifel said.

But Blunt's office said it was Zweifel who was "playing politics" and suggested he should reconsider a referendum drive.

"We would hope he would put Missouri families ahead of politics and not attempt to delay all the benefits that are inherent with the higher education package," said Blunt spokeswoman Jessica Robinson.

Higher ed bill is SB389.

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