JEFFERSON CITY — Amid accusations of regional divisiveness and pork-barrel politics, the Senate Appropriations Committee on Wednesday delayed action on a bond aimed at higher education construction projects by at least two weeks.
Most of the projects in the now $350 million bond bill directly involve University of Missouri system campuses.
MU is the most affected, as the bond would fund construction of both a major life-science research center and renovations to an engineering building on the campus.
But some of the other projects in the bill — ranging from cosmetic touch-ups to wide-scale laboratory renovations — were not as clearly life-science oriented as the UM system’s requests. Under the initial bond proposal, a life-science research mission was considered mandatory in order to receive funds.
“This project list is as amorphous as Jell-O,” said Pat Dougherty, D-St. Louis.
The question about the project’s mission made some senators wonder aloud whether this bond had anything to do with life sciences at all. Some raised concerns that local interests were obscuring the initial intent of the bond.
The original bond proposal included projects for the UM system campuses only.
But the bill heard Wednesday afternoon included schools from across the state, such as Harris-Stowe State College, Linn State Technical College and others.
“If I’ve ever seen a statewide pork-barrel list, this is it,” said Sen. Wayne Goode, D-St. Louis. “You pick something here, you want something there, just find something to plug in. I’m not sure that’s the way we should do business.”
Later in the meeting, however, Goode also argued that the St. Louis metropolitan area ought to receive a greater proportion of the bond because of its economic generation for the state.
Shifting funds around to various projects was also a concern for Sen. Doyle Childers, R-Reeds Spring, who said he wanted to make sure that legislators could not change funding priorities later in the process.
“I want to see this bill written to prevent someone from moving this money around to satisfy some constituents,” he said.
Sen. John Russell, R-Lebanon, said one of the key reasons for delaying action on the bill in the afternoon meeting was to allow people to gain some perspective on the legislation.
“We have a real political problem,” he said. “We’re dealing with regional pride, pride of the universities and the pride of schools that aren’t universities. This gives everyone a little bit of time to reflect.”
The bond was initially a $190.4 million request, but that number was increased to account for debt-payment requirements.
Meanwhile, the Coordinating Board of Higher Education will have to spend the next few weeks determining if the projects on the list — now up to 14 — are relevant to what the bonding bill originally asked schools to consider. Board President Quentin Wilson said that 50 percent of the projects in question had never been reviewed by the CBHE .
Specifically, the state panel will be looking at the mission of the school in question, the economic impact of its project, how it affects the local workforce, the ability of the school to provide local funding, the time frame of the construction project and its relevance to the life sciences.
“These are important needs and projects,” said Wilson. “The questions raised are important, too.”
The bond issue was initially proposed as part of a deal to end a filibuster by Sen. Ken Jacob, D-Columbia, against a bill that would have changed the name of Southwest Missouri State University to Missouri State University.