$2 million for university ties up $24 billion Missouri budget plan

Tuesday, May 8, 2012 | 5:11 p.m. CDT

JEFFERSON CITY — A disagreement over whether a state university deserves a $2 million funding increase was contributing to a stalemate Tuesday on Missouri's $24 billion budget plan.

Republican House Speaker Steven Tilley, R-Perryville, wants to add the money for his alma mater of Southeast Missouri State University in Cape Girardeau, which has the second-lowest funding-to-student ratio among Missouri's public universities. He's being opposed by Republican Sen. Jason Crowell, of Cape Girardeau, who served as the university's student government president in 1994.

Crowell has vowed to filibuster all bills on the Senate floor in an attempt to force a House and Senate conference committee to strike the $2 million increase from the final version of the budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1. Tilley has been adamant that the money must be included. The two have also been at odds over a proposal to provide up to $295,000 for an early childhood literacy program at the university, even though negotiators already have agreed to a compromise for $100,000.

The dispute has gotten personal among the two lawmakers, who once were both friends and political allies.

During a debate that stretched from Monday into early Tuesday, Crowell accused Tilley of earmarking the money for the university as a prelude to a post-legislative career as a lobbyist.

Crowell rhetorically asked: "Can people not connect the dots when the speaker of the House says he wants $2.3 million for Southeast Missouri State University, and he wants to address funding inequities" that the state Department of Higher Education did not seek to address?

"He's already a confessed lobbyist. He's already fundraising for people in this chamber and people in the House," Crowell said.

Tilley called the assertions about lobbying "ridiculous," adding that he has not made a decision about what to do after his legislative career is ended by term limits next January. Tilley said there is nothing wrong about raising money for other legislative candidates, which he has done for years. He accused Crowell of opposing the funding increase because he carries a grudge against the university president.

"He's a child, and he basically said that if I don't get my way, nothing's going to happen — that's how kindergartners act," Tilley said Tuesday. "Unfortunately, it's gotten personal to him."

Underlying the tension is a policy dispute about whether Southeast Missouri State deserves an increase when funding remains flat for other universities and colleges and funding for educational programs in state prisons faces a cut.

According to figures from the state Department of Higher Education, Southeast is getting $4,710 per full-time student this year. That ranks ahead of only the $4,366 funding-to-student ratio of Missouri Western State University in St. Joseph, which is not slated to receive more money. Southeast and Western both lag well behind Harris-Stowe State University in St. Louis, which has the highest ratio of $7,699.

"You've got an inequity with how the money's being distributed, and I'm trying to fix it," Tilley said.

Other universities have received funding boosts in past years to make up for inequities.

Senate President Pro Tem Rob Mayer, R-Dexter, said he doesn't oppose additional money going to Southeast, but he's not sure the timing is right. Mayer, who is an alumnus of the university, said a better approach would be to ask the state Department of Higher Education to come up with a plan for addressing funding disparities at Southeast and Western over a five-to-seven year period.

Tilley said further studying the issue would delay addressing the disparities.

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