Funding tops Senate debate

Democratic state Senate candidates found common ground Friday but disagreed over MU arena funding.
Sunday, June 20, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 5:44 a.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008

Democratic state Senate candidates Chuck Graham and Tim Harlan agree on many issues. They both want affordable health care, plan to increase emphasis on higher education, think the funding formula for K-12 needs to be reconsidered and support worker’s compensation.

The two butt heads on one issue, however. In 2001, the Missouri General Assembly approved a bill to allocate $35 million to finance the building of a new basketball arena at MU. Bill and Nancy Laurie, private donors, had given $25 million for the building. Both Graham and Harlan were then House representatives. Graham sponsored the bill; Harlan opposed it on the floor.

Now, as the two former colleagues fight for the 19th District state senate seat, the issue has arisen again. It was a source of debate Friday at a forum hosted by the Muleskinners, a local Democratic group.

“It was a poor use of state funds, and a matter of priorities,” Harlan said at the meeting. In an earlier interview Harlan said that the arena was not something that MU had to have and that “the question then and now still is: ‘Is building a new basketball arena the best use of state and education resources?’ I don’t think so.”

Graham still stands behind his vote, saying the construction impact alone brought in $176 million and created jobs.

“I was a proud sponsor of that bill,” he said. “It’s going to have a big impact on our economy. It’s going to bring people into our community. It’s going to have them in our hotels and restaurants, and that’s what helps us afford the quality of life.”

The candidates also disagreed on the issue of the death penalty, with Harlan an opponent and Graham supporting the policy.

Another issue discussed was funding for education.

Harlan said the importance of higher education has to be stressed to the General Assembly, and MU has to sell itself to the rest of the state.

“I admit I went to Jefferson City thinking that everyone supported higher education; that was a rude awakening for me,” Harlan said.

Graham discussed the bill he introduced to the House in February that proposes removing a $500 loss limit on gaming and also increasing the tax on casino revenue by one percent, which he said would restore education funds and fund scholarship programs.

Both candidates said they feel the foundation formula that funds grades K-12 will have to be reworked. A lawsuit has been filed against the state alleging the current system does not equally fund education. Harlan said he believes the court will force legislators to come up with an entirely new system, and he suggested realigning current funding and looking to other states for examples.

Graham said he agreed the state is not currently providing equal and adequate education. He sponsored a bill to rewrite portions of the formula two years ago.

“We may have to rewrite the formula, and I certainly think it would be beneficial to have somebody who knows the formula, has worked on the formula and has passed a bill to change the formula,” Graham said, who has himself worked on rewrites in the past. A future rewrite, however, may involve the formula in its entirety.

Graham cited funding for higher education as his No. 1 issue, while Harlan said availability of health insurance for small businesses and the regulation of health insurance companies are his priorities.

Harlan said these emphases stem from his experience as a social security disability lawyer in the community for the past 30 years. In 1994 he was elected as the 23rd District representative and said he considers his managed-care and health-insurance legislation his greatest accomplishment. He said at the forum that the bill was rated by U.S. News and World Report as the most comprehensive bill in the country regarding HMO regulations.

Before becoming the 24th district representative in 1996, Graham was employed with MU as the Missouri coordinator for the Americans with Disabilities Act Project. He considers his greatest accomplishment in the House to be his work making changes to the public school foundation formula, saying the bill he sponsored “increased funds for fast-growing school districts like Columbia and Boone County.”

House term limits forced Harlan out of office in 2002 and will force Graham out this year. The Aug. 3 primary will determine who will run against Republican candidate Michael Ditmore.

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