Nixon defends college building plan suspension

Thursday, January 29, 2009

COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) -- Gov. Jay Nixon ventured to the University of Missouri's flagship campus Thursday to tout a proposed expansion of health care training for college students.

He instead spent much of his time defending a decision announced a day earlier to suspend several college construction projects funded with money from Missouri's student loan authority. Among the projects: $31.2 million toward replacement of the 70-year-old Ellis Fischel Cancer Center in Columbia.

The college building program -- started by former Republican Gov. 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 has delayed several subsequent quarterly payments because of financial troubles caused by the credit market crunch and changes in federal student loan laws.

"That's $100 million that's not in the bank," Nixon told an audience of students, faculty, administrators and Columbia campus Chancellor Brady Deaton at a Sinclair School of Nursing news conference. "MOHELA did not make its payments anywhere near the numbers they said they would.

"I'm not going to stand in front of the people of Missouri and promise something from a bank account that doesn't have something in it. That money doesn't exist."

As attorney general and later on the campaign trail, the Democratic governor opposed Blunt's college building plan.

Reaction to the MOHELA decision took away much of the luster from what had been intended as a celebratory news conference.

Surrounded by nearly 50 female nursing students in black scrubs and several mannequins posing as bedridden hospital patients, Nixon pushed his $39.8 million "Caring for Missourians" proposal as an immediate boost to the state's economy. It would allow schools limited by space and staff shortages to graduate more than 900 new nurses, dentists, physical therapists and medical technology specialists.

About $6.5 million of that money would go to Linn State Technical College and other two-year schools. Among four-year schools, the University of Missouri-Kansas City would receive the largest share, $11.7 million.

Blunt pushed a proposal last year with a moniker -- "Preparing to Care" -- that was nearly identical to the new Nixon measure. Legislative budget writers reduced Blunt's proposal by two-thirds before cutting it entirely. Nixon said he expects a different result this time.

In addition to the Columbia cancer center, three more of the remaining 30 construction projects outlined in Blunt's Lewis and Clark Discovery Initiative have been suspended indefinitely: 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 in Cape Girardeau.

Nixon said Thursday that those projects where "crews are already on the ground working" will not be halted.

"We will finish the projects that are in the middle of construction," he said.

House Speaker Ron Richard, R-Joplin, called the MOHELA cuts a "bad idea" that will leave colleges scrambling to reverse decisions made with the expectation the state would deliver construction money.

"That's a promise we made," he said.

Before the news conference, Nixon huddled privately with Deaton and several other high-level university administrators. Deaton said afterward that he remains heartened by the new governor's commitment to public higher education -- especially a pledge to not trim the budgets of the state's colleges and universities in exchange for their commitment to not raise tuition next year.

"The university has been treated very fairly," Deaton said.

Associated Press writers David Lieb and Chris Blank in Jefferson City contributed to this report.

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