Legislators have little time to agree on scholarship bill

Friday, April 28, 2006 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 4:10 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

JEFFERSON CITY — A proposal to cap state funding for colleges and universities at 2002 fiscal year levels is still a possibility, even as the legislature enters its last two weeks of the session.

On Thursday, the Senate passed a stripped-down version of an approved House bill to establish a scholarship program. Another provision of the bill would keep the amount of state assistance to Missouri colleges and universities at 2002 levels. The bill seeks to cap appropriations until state scholarships are fully funded.

But, the Senate passed only part of the original House bill — the provision to establish and fund a new scholarship program.

Sen. Chuck Graham, D-Columbia, thanked Charlie Shields, the Republican Floor Leader from St. Joseph, for removing the caps.

“We’re just busy supporting your good work in stripping out all the very, very bad things that were in the original bill,” Graham said to Shields on the Senate floor Thursday.

Carl Bearden, Speaker Pro Tem of the House and the original bill’s sponsor, said the bill passed by the Senate is unacceptable, and the two sides will need to work together on a compromise.

“My main focus in this whole thing has been focusing on the students. The bill that they passed does not do that,” said Bearden, R-St. Charles. “Right now we have probably 20,000 students at least not getting those scholarships because we’re not funding them.”

Higher education funding is currently at a level lower than the 2002 rate. Once the institutions meet the level they were at in 2002, future increases would be capped at 2.5 percent under the provisions in the bill.

The scholarship program established by the bill seeks to give $1,000 to each freshman attending a private or public higher education institution in Missouri. In order to qualify, students must have attended a Missouri high school for at least three years and achieved a 2.5 grade point average. The program would end in 2009 and is expected to cost the state $20 million over a two-year period.

Bearden said the Senate must agree on a bill closer to his original proposal in order to gain House support to appropriate profits from the sale of student loans.

“They are joined at the heart. We have a student component and a capital component,” Bearden said. “One can’t survive without the other.”

House Speaker Rod Jetton, R-Marble Hill, said he agreed that the appropriations and scholarship bills are intimately linked. The House, Senate and governor’s office have differing priorities for how the state should spend the $450 million expected from the sale of student loans by the Missouri Higher Education Loan Authority, he said.

“It’s not so much that there’s two separate bills,” Jetton said. “It’s just that the concepts of what we wanted to do — whether it’s scholarships, health care or capital improvements — we couldn’t all do in one bill.”

The Senate and the House will have to compromise on the House scholarship bill before May 5, which is the constitutional deadline for the General Assembly to have appropriation legislation passed.

Four senators voted against the Senate version of the scholarship bill.

“I have a very fundamental concern about our ability to continue to finance programs like this,” said Sen. Matt Bartle, R-Lee’s Summit, who voted against the bill.

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