SMSU name bill sits in senatorial limbo

Opponents prepare for a still-unknown date of floor debate.
Sunday, February 6, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 9:34 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 14, 2008

The next step in Southwest Missouri State University’s quest to change its name now rests with one person: state Sen. Gary Nodler.

On Jan. 25, the Senate Education Committee approved a bill 6-3 that would allow SMSU to drop its regional moniker and become Missouri State University. As the chairman of that committee, Nodler, R-Joplin, must now report the approved bill to the Senate clerk.

However, he has not yet sent the bill to the Senate clerk.

“It will be to the floor soon enough,” Nodler said Thursday. “But first we are going to take care of a few major pieces of legislation, such as workers’ compensation, before we get to any name-change bills.”

SMSU has been trying to become Missouri State University for more than 15 years, and now backers hope to have the name change approved this legislative session — before SMSU’s 100th anniversary March 17. With Senate and House leadership behind the bill and an endorsement from Gov. Matt Blunt, that could be a possibility.

Farra Fite, a spokeswoman for President Pro Tem Michael Gibbons, R-Kirkwood, said although the bill is important to the leadership in the legislature, state senators want to take care of the workers’ compensation bill and a few other issues before jumping headfirst into the name-change game, which they know will become controversial.

“There are a few more steps that need to be taken before we can get to this issue,” Fite said.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Norma Champion, R-Springfield, would also change Missouri Western and Harris-Stowe colleges from state colleges to state universities and drop Joplin from the name of Missouri Southern State University-Joplin. Similar bills were brought to the legislature last year but were dropped when the SMSU issue went to the Senate.

Nodler said he could not predict what date the bill will go to the floor but said that it could be there in the next couple of weeks.

That extra time has given Sen. Chuck Graham, D-Columbia, a chance to prepare his defense.

“I have already begun to draft a number of amendments and other items that would change the name to something else,” Graham said.

Graham has been a vocal dissenter in the Senate on the SMSU name-change issue and has threatened to filibuster the bill to ensure its defeat. All of that, he said, depends on when the Republican leadership wants to bring the bill up for debate.

“At this point, it is really their decision when they want to dance,” he said.

For his filibuster to work, Graham will have to first be recognized by the Senate GOP leadership and then hold the floor by talking about any topic continuously.

Graham said he is up to the task and has begun preparing texts from old bills and some favorite books to read aloud.

While the name-change bill is idle, people who oppose it have kept busy lobbying lawmakers, hoping to sway opinion against the measure.

Even students are encouraged to join the fray. On Wednesday night at a regular meeting of the Missouri Students Association, members of the MU Alumni Association spoke to student senators, urging them to throw their weight against any name change by SMSU.

Jim Sterling, a spokesman for the Alumni Association, journalism professor and former curator, told student senators the university would not only be hurt financially, but the state would ultimately suffer.

“This is the wrong bill at the wrong time,” Sterling said. “Sure it is good for Springfield, but the state of Missouri will be the real loser.”

And at a meeting of the UM Board of Curators last week in Columbia, Elson Floyd, president of the University of Missouri System, broke his silence and discussed the SMSU name change. Floyd said the decision will reside with the General Assembly but he hoped lawmakers would take the UM System’s mission into consideration.

Speaking to curators Friday morning, Floyd called for an affirmation of the land-grant and research responsibilities of the university, a commitment to not duplicate academic programs already offered by the UM System,and the legislative commitment to not give SMSU more funding than UM.“The state can ill-afford to fund a second research university in Missouri given the limited financial resources available and the state’s fiduciary responsibilities and obligations to its citizens,” Floyd said in his remarks to the board.

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