Crowell: Stalling budget wasn't due to vendetta against SEMO

Friday, May 11, 2012
Jason Crowell

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Sen. Jason Crowell wasn't acting out of malice, he said Thursday. When the Cape Girardeau Republican tried to block Southeast Missouri State University from getting an extra $2 million this week, he said he was acting on principle.

As Crowell's filibustering threatened to cause the state's $24 billion budget to miss today's constitutionally mandated deadline, some speculated that Crowell was being motivated by a long-standing grudge against university president Ken Dobbins. But Crowell was adamant Thursday that nothing could be further from the truth.

"Ken Dobbins is as irrelevant in my world as I am in his world," Crowell said. "It had nothing to do with anything personal. I have principled positions."

So Crowell was pleased with the compromise plan that will spread $3 million among seven state universities, with the largest share -- $885,969 -- going to Southeast. The boost will raise the total Southeast state appropriation for fiscal 2013 to roughly $43.7 million, which is up from the current year's $43.5 million, according to the state's Office of Administration.

Crowell doesn't deny that he's had disagreements with the way Southeast has handled certain situations, such as the way it issued bonds for its River Campus without having a revenue stream to repay them. But those disagreements had nothing to do with this, Crowell said, repeatedly calling his decision to block the $2 million earmark, proposed by House Speaker Steve Tilley, R-Perryville, a matter of principle.

Crowell noted that many college students from his 25th District choose to go to universities other than Southeast. It is also important to remember, Crowell said, that Southeast did not ask for the money and had no real plan for how to spend it. He also disputed Tilley's notion that the $2 million would address a disparity in state funding on a per-student rate, although Southeast was ranked second-to-last in state appropriations in that category.

Heaping more taxpayer dollars into Southeast doesn't help the other universities where many of his constituents end up opting to go, Crowell said. So the compromise plan that ultimately passed, he said, "is an actual addressing of the issue that Steven [Tilley] said he was addressing, which is equitable funding."

Not to mention, Crowell said, that taxpayers are sick of earmarks. The U.S. Congress, for example, has banned them.

Tilley did not return phone calls to his capitol office Thursday seeking comment.

Crowell also levied criticisms of the bipartisan group of Southeast Missouri legislators who issued "unwavering support" earlier this week for Southeast receiving the extra $2 million, including 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.

Crowell especially took umbrage against those who supported the $2 million earmark while voting earlier in the session to cut a health program for blind Missourians.

"Shame on them," Crowell said. "They were saying $2 million for SEMO is more important to them than finding a way to fund health care for the blind. ... I'm a fiscal conservative and I would rather take care of blind people than give SEMO a bridge to nowhere."

Several, including Wallingford, Lichtenegger and Hodges, defended their decisions, saying that Southeast has been underfunded for years. Those three also conceded that the final outcome was a good compromise, in light of all the bickering.

"I'm sure [Crowell's] not pleased with the way I went," Wallingford said. "But you're not going to please everybody. That's just part of the process."

Both Wallingford and Lichtenegger called their decision in March to cut the health care funds for the blind a difficult one, though the money was eventually partially restored this week. Wallingford pointed out that many tough decisions were made in light of the state's $500 million budget shortfall. If the group had never received the money in the past, Wallingford said, he would not have voted for the program to begin this year because the funds weren't there.

Lichtenegger said she voted to cut the program because it targets only one group with a disability. She has no problem funding programs geared to the blind, but wondered where similar programs were for others with disabilities, such as those with hearing impairments.

As to Crowell's "shame on them" admonition, Lichtenegger said she doesn't question Crowell's principles and he shouldn't question hers.

"I would never venture to say he did anything wrong," Lichtenegger said. "But he cannot make a blanket statement that the five of us supported this and how bad we are. We were supporting the university that sits in the middle of our voting district. We did what we thought was right, just as he did."

Hodges, who did not vote to cut the program for the blind, said that Crowell is "out of pocket" with the sensibilities of those in his district. Hodges also said he did not understand how a legislator could lobby against funds coming into his own district.

"If you want to be neutral, then don't do anything," Hodges said. "But to take efforts against them? That takes some review. It's like if I said East Prairie is a bad place to live. ... I will tell you, his reputation, the image he projects up there, it's not beneficial to him."

The process was divisive at times, with Tilley calling Crowell a "child" who would do anything to get what he wants, even if it meant causing the state to miss its constitutionally mandated deadline to complete a budget. Crowell suggested that Tilley was giving Southeast the $2 million to secure a lobbying job later.

But Crowell said it was never personal to him. He was simply working to accomplish goals he believed in.

"That's totally what this was all about," Crowell said. "You can put whatever you want about what you think my motives are. That's what was in my heart and that's what I've been doing. It's been consistent all session long."

smoyers@semissourian.com

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201 W. Capitol Ave., Jefferson City, MO

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