Gov. Nixon suspends construction project funding at Southeast, other colleges

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Southeast Missouri State University leaders hope the state will decide not to put on indefinite suspension a major project that's only months away from completion -- the Autism Center for Diagnosis and Treatment.

Gov. Jay Nixon's administration confirmed Wednesday it has halted millions of dollars of planned college construction projects that were to be funded with money from Missouri's student loan authority.

Part of that money was a $2.6 million appropriation to fund the 1,582-square-foot autism center, for which a groundbreaking ceremony was held Friday. But university president Dr. Ken Dobbins said he believes the funding will be reinstated due to Sen. Jason Crowell's efforts to keep the state funding.

"We may have some difficulties, since we already have a [construction] contract," Dobbins said of the project.

Dobbins said the project should actually come in somewhere between $300,000 and $400,000 under budget. The roughly $1.5 million construction project was awarded to Zoellner Construction of Perryville, Mo., on Friday, Dobbins said. The center and its construction would stimulate the local economy and "provide a model for others to emulate" in the field of autism research, he said.

Nixon's administration commissioner sent letters dated Tuesday to five universities notifying them payments were being halted for about $150 million worth of construction projects. Many of those projects were either still in the planning stages or in the early stages of construction.

Four projects have been suspended indefinitely. Those include the $31.2 million new Ellis Fischel Cancer Center at the University of Missouri-Columbia; a $5 million plant science building in Mexico, Mo.; a $600,000 swine research facility in Callaway County; and a $4.5 million business center at Southeast Missouri State University.

Dobbins said the business center, which is planned near the new East Main Street/La Salle Avenue interchange, isn't as near to completion as the autism center -- no ground has been broken yet. While the university would like the funding for the center, Dobbins said the project is one that can be put on hold to adjust for lean funding.

For an additional 14 projects, university leaders were told continued funding "may not be forthcoming" or that the projects were under review by Nixon's administration, a category that includes the autism center. The move also puts on hold $2 million for the Delta Research Center in Southeast Missouri

Crowell, R-Cape Girardeau, said he learned Wednesday of the Nixon's decision to put the autism center on hold and immediately contacted Nixon's administration commissioner. Crowell said he understands the state and student loan authority both are financially strapped but he hopes to work with Nixon's administration to get the project back on track.

The college building program, started by former GOP governor Matt Blunt, depends on the receipt of $350 million over several years from the Missouri Higher Education Loan Authority.

The loan agency made an initial $230 million payment to the state in September 2007. But it has delayed several subsequent quarterly payments because of financial troubles caused by the credit market crunch and changes in federal student loan laws.

Nixon, a Democrat, had as attorney general opposed Blunt's college building plan because it took money away from the student loan authority. As a gubernatorial candidate last year, Nixon derided it as "horrifically wrong public policy."

"I don't think you should take any more resources out of MOHELA to fund those capital projects," Nixon said during a June gubernatorial candidates forum.

Nixon took office as governor Jan. 12. His administration said Wednesday the college construction fund has about $119 million in it, but the trend of missed payments by the student loan authority means the fund doesn't have enough to complete all the planned projects.

"We have a substantial shortfall in that account," said Paul Wilson, a senior counsel to Nixon for budget and financial issues.

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