JEFFERSON CITY — A state House committee stripped the Ellis Fischel Cancer Center of $31.2 million in federal stimulus funds after House Democrats walked out of the committee hearing Monday.
During a dispute over rules and procedure in the House Rules Committee hearing, all Democrats on the committee — including Rep. Stephen Webber, D-Columbia — departed and left the vote to the Republicans on committee. With the Democrats absent, House Republican floor leader Steve Tilley forwarded an amendment that would redistribute Ellis Fischel's funds to community colleges, University of Missouri-St. Louis and Southeast Missouri State University.
Tilley justified his amendment by saying that Webber's departure opened up an opportunity to redistribute the Ellis Fischel money.
"When he (Webber) leaves the committee, and he's not there to defend his own district, I don't feel any obligation to defend it for him," Tilley said. "So what I did was try to take care of my region."
The bill passed unanimously with Tilley's amendment successfully tacked onto it. It next goes to the state House to be heard before moving to the state Senate.
More than $300 million in the bill would appropriate federal stimulus money to capital improvement projects on state-operated buildings and facilities. Of the dozens of facilities and projects named in the bill, Ellis Fischel was the only project that lost funding in late January, when the 2006 sale of the Missouri Higher Education Loan Authority's assets was deemed inadequate to support further funding.
But the House Budget Committee chairman said he does not think the bill's committee passage means the death knell for Ellis Fischel's funding. Rep. Allen Icet, R-Wildwood, said the nature of the process would allow opportunities to get Ellis Fischel back into the bill.
"Trust me: I don't get worked up about anything that happens because I know there are multiple steps in this process," Icet said. He also said he recognizes the value of Ellis Fischel and "will look into it and try to get something restored."
As Missouri's only hospital dedicated primarily to cancer, Ellis Fischel was slated to move from its current facility on Business Loop 70 to a site next to MU's University Hospital. The current facility, which is 70 years old, can no longer accommodate newer technology because of architectural and spacial constraints.
Ellis Fischel might receive funding from a $700 million bond resolution sponsored by Rep. Chris Kelly, D-Columbia, and co-sponsored by Tilley. But that proposal faced a Senate committee Monday and is not ready to pass, said Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia.
The Democrats' walkout was the culmination of a dispute in the Rules Committee over whether the bill could be heard in that committee and not the House Budget Committee, where public testimony can be heard.
Republicans cited a line in a House guidebook that allows the House speaker to move bills into any committee in special circumstances and validates the bill's hearing in the Rules Committee. They said because all budget bills must be past the state Senate and on the governor's desk by May 8, this bill warranted the special circumstantial hearing in the Rules Committee.
But Democrats pointed to House Rule 25, which states that all appropriation bills must pass through House Budget and no other House committee.
When the Republican majority did not budge, Democrats on the committee got up and left the hearing room, leaving discussion of the bill and voting in Republican hands. After the Democrats were gone, Tilley drafted his amendment to direct funds from Ellis Fischel to other universities and community colleges. The amendment passed 6-1.
Legislators from both parties labeled the dispute and the subsequent Democrat walkout as petty political stunts.
Tilley said the affair was simply theater.
"You know, if they want to do theater, we're going to do the state's business," Tilley said. "Win or lose, I stay there and continue the game. And they decide to pick up their toys and go home."
Webber and House Democratic floor leader Paul LeVota, D-Independence, defended the Democratic caucus' actions and said the Republicans blatantly violated House rules.
When asked if defending House rules was worth losing funding for Ellis Fischel, LeVota blamed it on the Republicans.
"There's not one Democrat who voted not to fund that facility," LeVota said. "The Republicans decided to be petty and play their political games and cut an important facility in Columbia. ... It is clearly not what a government body should be doing, to punish an area because they don't like the actions of their representative."
When a reporter said Republicans could argue that the Democrats were playing a political game, LeVota pointed to the Republicans' status as the majority party.
"They're the ringmasters of the circus," LeVota said. "They started the circus."
Webber said that the Republicans' hearing and voting on the bill ultimately do not affect him directly.
"What it did was hurt the citizens of Missouri who are suffering from cancer or may need treatment in the future," Webber said. "I understand they were angry that we called it a sham process and that we pointed out their blatant violation of the rules. But to turn around and take that out on people in this state who are looking for hope, who are trying to survive cancer, to me was incredibly vindictive and getting way too personal."