Lawmakers divided over Nixon withholding Ellis Fischel funding

Friday, June 26, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — Although Gov. Jay Nixon didn't veto $31.2 million in funding for a new Ellis Fischel Cancer Center in Columbia, he has decided to withhold it for now.

UM representatives, including system President Gary Forsee and representatives of MU Health Care aren't happy, but at least the two local legislators are optimistic the money will be forthcoming.

Nixon's decision came to light after a news conference Thursday morning in which he detailed $105 million worth of cuts in the state budget for fiscal 2010. Local legislators and others had lobbied him heavily to preserve money for the new cancer center.

Forsee, however, criticized the governor's decision to withhold money for Ellis Fischel and for two capital projects at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

"As a practical consequence, all planning for these projects must come to a halt as the university re-evaluates its options," Forsee said in a prepared statement. "These construction and renovation projects enjoy wide public support and address long-standing problems with aging facilities that no longer serve the purposes for which they are intended."

"We fully understand the state is facing challenging financial times, but eliminating or delaying funding for shovel-ready projects represents a missed opportunity to stimulate the economy..." Forsee said.

MU Health Care issued a similar statement, saying it is "disappointed that Governor Nixon has chosen to delay funding," and "we're concerned about the impact this will have on the care of cancer patients in the state of Missouri."

UM Curators Chairman Bo Fraser said he's "very disappointed that there is not funding available right now. I guess it's a good thing it wasn't vetoed, but if he withholds the money, it's basically the same thing."

The decision to withhold rather than veto the funding means that the governor will decide later in the fiscal year whether to release the money. In Missouri, the governor is required to balance the budget. Given a 6 percent drop in state revenue this year, Nixon is in a tight spot fiscally.

Jack Cardetti, the governor's spokesman, said Nixon recognizes the importance of Ellis Fischel. "Ellis Fischel is an important project and part of a two-year appropriations bill. The governor is acting in a fiscally responsible way, which will allow us to determine the most cost-effective way to move forward with the project."

State Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, said the withholding doesn't solve the problem, and that it's the same as a veto if the university doesn't eventually receive the money.

"We won Round 1, but the second round is ensuring the university receives those funds," Schaefer said.

State Rep. Chris Kelly, D-Columbia, said one of the main forces driving the governor's decision probably was the overwhelming amount of support from citizens of both Columbia and Boone County, including Forsee, MU and the Columbia Chamber of Commerce.

"There was a lot of pressure, particularly from the Columbia and Boone County areas to not veto," Kelly said.

Schaefer noted that Ellis Fischel is the only cancer treatment center that helps patients who lack health insurance.

Kelly argued the withholding is much better than a veto. "Had it been vetoed, we would have to go back to square 1, going through the whole legislative process again." He said that with a withholding, some of the $31.2 million could be released to get the project going.

State Rep. Mary Still, D-Columbia, disapproved of the withholding, but agrees that it is far better than the veto.

"The governor's decision to appropriate this money in these budget times shows his understanding of the importance of the research mission of the university," Still said.

The 70-year-old Ellis Fischel on Business Loop 70 West can no longer support new technologies given a lack of space and the building's age, according to a previous Missourian report. MU Health Care spokesman Matt Splett said plans call for the new cancer center to occupy two floors of a new care tower on the University Hospital campus.

Splett said MU had hoped to tear down Hadley-Major Hall and Dockery-Folk Hall by August 1, start the utility infrastructure in August, then begin construction on the tower in 2010.

Missourian reporter Emily David contributed to this report.

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