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Missouri House candidates Robb, Kelly debate higher education

Wednesday, October 29, 2008 | 11:02 p.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — MU faculty members attending Wednesday night's candidate forum are worried: They're afraid higher education in Missouri is losing.

The Missouri chapter of the American Association of University Professors, the Graduate Students Association and the Associated Students of the University of Missouri hosted candidates for Missouri's 24th House District at the Engineering Building West at MU on Wednesday.

Before the forum, moderator and MU doctoral student Lauren Brengarth set the tone for the evening by listing a few telling statistics.

For example, from fiscal years 2002 through 2007, the national average for state expenditures on higher education went up 15.1 percent, while in Missouri, expenditures went down 9.1 percent. And Missouri ranks 47th out of the 50 states in state aid for higher education.

Republican incumbent Rep. Ed Robb, R-Columbia, and former Democratic legislator Chris Kelly fielded questions from the audience and a panel of university representatives. Although health care and energy policy were discussed, the two veteran politicians spent most of the night debating the future of higher education in Missouri.

"Society is not taking responsibility for the education of the public," Kelly said. "And that's exactly what we've got here in the state of Missouri."

Robb agreed that the state should have done more to fund higher education over the past few years.

"We have been remiss in this state; there is no doubt about that," Robb said. "We need to be looking at dedicated resources of revenue."

Both candidates agreed on the importance of fully funding MU but differed on how to better support MU and, more importantly, on who was the best candidate for higher education.

Kelly touted his 12 years of experience in the Missouri legislature and his successes, such as securing capital projects for the MU Law School.

"I have the experience and the skill to get things done," Kelly said. "I will go to the mat for the University of Missouri."

Robb taught economics at MU for 30 years before entering the legislature and sitting as vice chairman of the House Budget Committee. He says he understands the importance of MU, particularly from an economic standpoint.

"(MU) is different than the other colleges in the state," he said. "Higher education funding, as an economic stimulus package, has the highest rate of returns to investment."

Robb and Kelly, the former chairman of the budget committee, disagreed on the recent sale of Missouri Higher Education Loan Authority assets.

"(The Republican legislature) looted the money that is used for student loans and let all of (MOHELA's) fatness alone. They didn't do a single thing about the fatness," Kelly said.

Robb had supported the sale and argued that the sale of MOHELA assets was a sound business decision with minimal negative effects on student loan rates.

"MOHELA has virtually nothing to do with student loans other than servicing them," Robb said.

Kelly acknowledged that selling MOHELA made money available to thousands of Missouri students.

"But that ability to do that has been put in jeopardy by Matt Blunt and the Republicans. There's no two ways about it," Kelly said.

Both candidates think a general obligation bond would be a proper step to further fund MU and other colleges in Missouri, but they said they alone couldn't push for further funding without more support from those affected most: the universities.

"You need to get the legislators up here because the university sells itself," Robb said. "Get (legislators) to speak with faculty, speak with students. You have to show them this cutting-edge research and things can change."

Kelly agreed with Robb that university advocates lack the organizational clout that other advocacy groups have in Jefferson City.

"University members say things like, 'Oh, I can't be political,' " Kelly said. "That's nonsense. You need to get serious about behaving like intelligent political actors in the political market."


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