Members of the Columbia business community asked legislators Thursday to do all they can to bring profits from the partial sale of Missouri Higher Education Loan Authority assets to the city.
“There are lots of issues, there are lots of factors, but are you individually going to stand up and fight for the $92 million?” one man asked, referring to money earmarked from the sale for construction at MU.
The legislators — state Reps. Ed Robb, R-Columbia, Jeff Harris, D-Columbia, Judy Baker, D-Columbia, and Steve Hobbs, R-Mexico — answered that they will. The four appeared at a Chamber of Commerce meeting attended by about 100 people. Sen. Chuck Graham, D-Columbia, could not attend the meeting because of a recent staph infection, but his chief of staff, Ted Farnen, said the senator will also try to ensure that Columbia gets its share of the sale.
MOHELA’s board of directors announced on Jan. 31 that it will sell $2.4 billion of the authority’s student loans to fund an initiative by Gov. Matt Blunt. That sale is expected to generate $450 million — $425 million of which would go to public higher education in Missouri.
The governor’s plan would send more than $90 million of the $300 million marked for campus building projects to MU. The rest of the money would go toward scholarships, endowed professorships, business incentives and unspecified initiatives for the state.
Another speaker in the audience told the legislators that the health sciences center will benefit people from around the state and the world who come to MU to study medicine.
Chamber of Commerce President Teresa Rouse Maledy officiated at the meeting with a large illustration of the planned center on an easel next to her. The center, which will be built next to University Hospital and the School of Medicine on the south side of campus, will focus on cancer, diabetes and heart disease research.
But Hobbs told the audience that the legislators need help to ensure Columbia gets the money.
“How many phone calls have you made to the attorney general?” Hobbs asked, referring to a lawsuit Attorney General Jay Nixon has filed against MOHELA. The lawsuit could result in a void of the student loan sale if a court decides the board of directors violated the state’s open meetings and records laws. Hobbs added, “We can talk about what we’re going to do up here, but if you don’t get on the phone and start talking to people, we can’t do it alone.”
Also Thursday, Will Shaffner, associate director of business development for MOHELA, said he couldn’t comment on the details of pending lawsuits. However, Shaffner said, “We don’t think we’re guilty — at least, I think we don’t think we’re guilty.”
On Wednesday, Blunt called the lawsuit a hurdle to a timely sale to fund his initiative. “We should not allow people who are trying to establish burdens or hurdles to get in the way of significant, positive progress for the people of our state,” he said.
The president of Columbia’s Special Business District, Carrie Gartner, said she came to the meeting to tell legislators to support the governor’s plan because it will bring more patrons to downtown businesses.
The chamber’s board of directors unanimously endorsed the plan at a meeting on Feb. 6 with Gregory Steinhoff, director of the state Department of Economic Development.
Steinhoff told state senators at a hearing on Tuesday that the plan will generate $6.7 billion for the state over 12 years and will create 4,880 jobs every year.