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Curators to governor: Money for Ellis Fischel essential

Friday, June 19, 2009 | 10:18 a.m. CDT; updated 3:57 p.m. CDT, Friday, June 19, 2009

COLUMBIA — After consulting with the UM System Board of Curators on Friday morning, President Gary Forsee is rewording a statement to Gov. Jay Nixon. But the message stands: Don't veto House Bill 22.

The bill would take away funding for systemwide capital improvement and research projects — notably Ellis Fischel Cancer Center in Columbia and Benton Stadler Science Complex  in St. Louis — for the coming fiscal year. Nixon spokesman Jack Cardetti said Friday that the governor's budget plans won't be announced until next week.

"The governor is going through the budget line-by-line to make sure we have a government Missouri taxpayers can afford," Cardetti said.

All but one of the nine curators met at 8 a.m. Friday via teleconference so Forsee could bring them up to speed. He told them he had been informed on Wednesday morning that Nixon was considering vetoing the entire bill. Forsee said he was already aware that line-item vetoes were being considered.

Forsee called vetoing the bill unacceptable and said the system had been relying on the state's funding commitments outlined in the bill. The $31.2 million designated for Ellis Fischel in the bill would pay for the cancer center's new facility, which would be part of the new patient care tower near University Hospital.

The current cancer center, off Business Loop 70, is 70 years old and too old to bring up to today's standards, Mary Jenkins, MU Health Systems spokeswoman, said in an interview Friday after the teleconference.

Forsee told the curators he discussed options with the governor's office, including a tradeoff of capital dollars for operating dollars — meaning that state money meant for the system's operating budget would go instead toward capital projects. But Forsee said there is no flexibility in the system's operating budet.

"Substituting is not an option and nothing we would consider," he said.

Part of the purpose of the teleconference was for curators to weigh in on Forsee's draft statement to the governor. Several curators were concerned about what they perceived as an adversarial tone of the draft, which was not immediately available to the news media.

Curator Don Downing of Webster Groves said he thought it would be more effective to demonstrate that the projects are "shovel ready" and would provide jobs for many Missourians. Downing said he thought this would be a better message than pointing out that Nixon might not be living up to his commitments.

The curators were also concerned about Forsee's use of the word "unacceptable" in the draft, and they recommended a less harsh word. 

Board members also wanted to be sure the statement stressed the fact that higher education needed to be a priority in the state's budget.

Forsee said he is making changes to the statement and sending it to Nixon on Friday afternoon. The final statement will be posted on the system's Web site, umsystem.edu.

If HB 22 were vetoed, its funding could be included in a bond initiative that would need to be passed by the General Assembly and then approved by the voters, curators said in the teleconference. But they were not optimistic that such an initiative would succeed.

Asked about a bond initiative, Cardetti said Nixon supports the bonding plan the legislature passed last year and thinks it is a smart way to fund capital projects during this time. Cardetti said he did not want to discuss what might or might not happen as a result of HB 22 being passed or vetoed, calling them "hypothetical situations."

Jenkins said that if the bill were vetoed, it could jeopardize the patient care tower, because the Ellis Fischel funding is a critical component of the tower.

But she said that though the funding is needed, the cancer center will not close down if the bill was vetoed. "We would continue to care for the state's cancer patients," Jenkins said.


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