UM scores big money this legislative session

Thursday, May 14, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT

JEFFERSON CITY — The troubled economy didn't stop the University of Missouri System from picking up funding this legislative session.

As other state-funded entities face budget cuts, UM  banked a $24 million increase over the past fiscal year. If signed by the governor, other legislation would bring in even more money for UM and Columbia.

Columbia's legislators say this success is a personal victory.

"Columbia has fared as well, if not better, than any other community in the state," said state Rep. Mary Still, D-Columbia. "I think we have a unique representation that benefits the entire community. We have the experience of senior legislators representing Columbia; we have the youthful exuberance of very young legislators."

Rep. Chris Kelly, D-Columbia, said a cooperative relationship emerged among mid-Missouri legislators that extended beyond party lines.

"It worked out well this year, and I think it will work well in future years," he said.

One measure backed by area legislators, a bill that would appropriate $80 million of federal stimulus funds for UM System construction projects, passed through the General Assembly and is awaiting Gov. Jay Nixon's signature.

If signed by Nixon, the bill would give almost $50 million to projects connected with MU such as:

  • $31.1 million for a new building for the Ellis Fischel Cancer Center;
  • $6.5 million for University of Missouri Hospital and Clinics;
  • $3 million for an outreach and education center in Lawrence County;
  • $1.8 million for Greenley Learning and Discovery Park; and
  • $1.7 million for the Delta Research Center's plant science greenhouse.

Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, said he thinks good committee assignments for Columbia legislators helped obtain funding for the Ellis Fischel Cancer Center.

"One of the biggest things that made this, from my perspective, a successful year is my committee assignments, probably most importantly the Appropriations Committee because that's really what made it possible to get Ellis Fischel from the Senate side," he said. "...(The involvement of Kelly and Rep. Steve Hobbs, R-Mexico) with the budget committee is what gave them the ability to get it on the House side."

It's been a long road to the governor's office for the appropriations bill. In January, Nixon announced the suspension of funding for state college and university construction projects paid for by the sale of Missouri Higher Education Loan Authority assets.

The appropriations bill would pay for the construction and capital improvement fees associated with some of the projects by using money from the Federal Budget Stabilization Fund.

In late April, the House Rules Committee stripped funding for the cancer center from the bill, only to replace it two days later. After being passed in committee, it moved on to the House floor, where it was rejected 82 to 68 .

Kelly said he and Hobbs urged other House members to change their votes in favor of the bill, one of many examples he cited of bipartisan cooperation between mid-Missouri legislators.

"We both worked the entire weekend, talking to one another and to other people, explaining what was in the bill," he said. "He worked on Republicans, and I worked on Democrats."

When the bill was reconsidered in the House a few days later, it passed with an overwhelming majority — 117 to 42 — and then passed in the Senate.

Funding for these projects is not set in stone. The governor will make some line-item vetoes to the bill, Nixon spokesman Jack Cardetti said.

"The governor wants to ensure that in these tough, challenging economic times, that the only projects that are approved both create jobs and help move the state forward," Cardetti said.

A $700 million bond issue that would secure $81 million for MU capital improvement projects made its way through the House but has been stalled by a filibuster in the Senate.

The bond issue would help fund Missouri Higher Education Loan Authority projects and other projects the university considers a priority. It would cover some of the same MOHELA projects specified in the appropriations bill, but provisions in each bill do not allow double-dipping.

The renovation of Lafferre Hall is among the projects that would receive funding from the bond issue. According to figures agreed upon by MU and the legislation's sponsors, the university would receive $47.8 million for Lafferre Hall and $2.5 million for engineering equipment.

The issue would require approval from Missouri voters to amend the state constitution and create a fund for the bonds and interest.

Kelly, who sponsored the proposal, said the issue has the votes to pass in the Senate but cannot overcome the filibuster. But passing a bond issue is always a long shot, he said.

"We did better than anyone thought we would do with it," he said. "All session long people said, 'You have no chance to pass that. You'll never get it out of a hearing in the House; you'll never get it out on the floor.'"

Schaefer, who is sponsoring the bill in the Senate, said he is asking for more floor time to debate the issue but thinks it will be an uphill battle to pass it.

The General Assembly also appropriated $13 million in fiscal year 2010 for capital improvements to the Mid-Missouri Mental Health Center in Columbia. The facility, which faced closure, will be run by University Hospital if Nixon approves another bill passed in both the House and Senate.

"That's such an important facility for mid-Missouri, especially after Boone Hospital closed its portion of the hospital that was devoted to mental health care," said Schaefer. "I think all of us in the delegation shared the concern that we need to do everything we could to make sure that facility stayed functional."

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