House Speaker Steve Tilley, R-Perryville, wants to add the money for his alma mater in Cape Girardeau, which has the second-lowest funding-to-student ratio among Missouri's public universities. He's being opposed by Rep. Jason Crowell, R-Cape Girardeau, who served as the university's student government president in 1994.
Their spat is the equivalent of fighting over a single penny found on a floor covered with 12,000 coins.
Crowell has vowed to filibuster all bills on the Senate floor in an attempt to force a House and Senate conference committee to strike the $2 million increase from the final version of the budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1. Tilley has been adamant that the money must be included.
The dispute has gotten personal among the two lawmakers, who once were both friends and political allies.
During a debate that stretched from Monday into early Tuesday, Crowell accused Tilley of earmarking the money for the university as a prelude to a post-legislative career as a lobbyist.
Crowell rhetorically asked: "Can people not connect the dots when the speaker of the House says he wants $2.3 million for Southeast Missouri State University, and he wants to address funding inequities" that the state Department of Higher Education did not seek to address?
"He's already a confessed lobbyist. He's already fundraising for people in this chamber and people in the House," Crowell said.
Tilley called the assertions about lobbying "ridiculous," adding that he has not made a decision about what to do after his legislative career is ended by term limits next January. Tilley said there is nothing wrong about raising money for other legislative candidates, which he has done for years. Tilley and others -- including one Democratic lawmaker and a high-ranking official with the Missouri Department of Higher Education -- accused Crowell of opposing the funding increase because he carries a grudge against Southeast president Ken Dobbins.
"He's a child, and he basically said that 'if I don't get my way, nothing's going to happen.' That's how kindergartners act," Tilley said Tuesday. "Unfortunately, it's gotten personal for him."
Rep. Chris Kelly, D-Columbia, rushed to Tilley's defense Tuesday, saying that Tilley is acting appropriately.
"What Tilley is doing is exactly what they pay us for," Kelly said. "Before he's a speaker, he's a state rep. He's doing the thing we all cherish, which is taking care of our folks. ... Southeast Missouri State University is important to Perry County. Tilley's argument is sound. Southeast is being underfunded."
Kelly also subscribes to the theory that Crowell is lashing out against Southeast because of animosity he holds against Dobbins, saying that the tension in the legislature is palpable.
Of Crowell, Kelly said: "People keep looking for logical reasons for his behavior, and there aren't any."
Paul Wagner, the deputy commissioner for the Missouri Department of Higher Education, noted that Crowell has frequently opposed measures when they favor the university. Wagner said Crowell has been a "persistent thorn in the side of Southeast Missouri State. What he's doing is right with the way he's always acted, which is to oppose the university."
Wagner also agreed that it's "very unusual" for a sitting legislator to oppose efforts to improve a university in his home district.
"He definitely on several items has gone out of his way to do something negative toward Southeast," Wagner said.
Two examples, he said, took place when Crowell worked to remove a $4.5 million business incubator at Southeast. He also vowed to fight a bill if Southeast was included that would have allowed universities to lease state-owned properties without having to go before lawmakers. Wagner noted that Crowell eventually dropped his opposition to that.
Wagner suggested that Crowell is still holding a grudge about the way Dobbins handled the financing of the River Campus. Wagner said he worked for the Senate at the time.
"He absolutely was very angry and very upset about the way the plan was financed," Wagner said. "He was opposed to the way Southeast went about it. He feels very strongly about that, and I think that's a big part of the root of his anger."
Neither Crowell nor Dobbins returned phone calls and emails from the Southeast Missourian seeking comment.
Meanwhile, late Tuesday afternoon a bipartisan group of Southeast Missouri legislators pledged their "unwavering support" for the university's funding increase. Reps. Donna Lichtenegger, R-Jackson, Wayne Wallingford, R-Cape Girardeau, Ellen Brandom, R-Sikeston, Billy Pat Wright, R-Dexter, and Steve Hodges, D-East Prairie, came together to stress what they felt is the importance of the additional $2 million.
Underlying the tension is a policy dispute about whether Southeast deserves an increase when funding remains flat for other universities and colleges and funding for educational programs in state prisons faces a cut.
According to figures from the state Department of Higher Education, Southeast is getting $4,710 per full-time student this year. That ranks ahead of only the $4,366 funding-to-student ratio of Missouri Western State University in St. Joseph, which is not slated to receive more money.
Senate President Pro Tem Rob Mayer, R-Dexter, said he doesn't oppose additional money going to Southeast, but he's not sure the timing is right. Mayer, who is an alumnus of the university, said a better approach would be to ask the state Department of Higher Education to come up with a plan for addressing funding disparities over a five- to seven-year period.
The Senate adjourned at 4 p.m., and Mayer said they were working into the evening to get the matter resolved. The Senate reconvenes at 10 a.m. today.
Mayer took a pass when asked if he was critical of Crowell's approach.
"I know that each senator has a different style and approach as they debate pieces of legislation," Mayer said. "During his career, he has been effective. It's not my style or approach, but it's an approach."
Southeast Missourian staff writer Scott Moyers contributed to this report.