Mo. Right to Life remains opposed to MOHELA bill

Friday, February 9, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 1:16 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri Right to Life said Thursday it remains opposed to Gov. Matt Blunt’s college construction plan, despite legislative changes intended to ease its fears that some buildings could be used for embryonic stem cell research.

A Senate committee on Wednesday removed $113 million worth of projects from Blunt’s $350 million plan, axing university buildings in St. Louis, Kansas City and Columbia that it claimed were the most likely to be used for stem cell research.

The Republican-led committee also added language barring funding for other buildings if they are to be used for stem cell research not currently eligible for federal funding.

Three Republican senators opposed to embryonic stem cell research agreed to advance the legislation to the Senate floor only after the changes were made.

But Missouri Right to Life said in a letter Thursday to senators that the changes were hollow assurances.

“Missouri Right to Life remains firmly opposed” to the legislation, President Pam Fichter and general counsel Jim Cole said in the letter.

At issue is Blunt’s plan to siphon $350 million from the Missouri Higher Education Loan Authority to help finance classrooms, laboratories and research-based businesses at public colleges and universities. The MOHELA board already has agreed to the deal, but it still needs legislative approval.

Missouri Right to Life wants to block the building projects because of a constitutional amendment narrowly approved by voters in November. Besides ensuring that all federally legal stem cell research can occur in Missouri, that measure also bars governments from trying to discourage stem cell research by denying funding to those associated with it.

Right to Life claims the constitutional amendment would bar the exclusion of certain building projects. So even though senators appeared to support its position, Right to Life says the restrictions are void and unenforceable and thus remains opposed to the legislation.

Cole said the standard for restricting stem cell research in Missouri is what is legal under federal law, not what is funded.

“You can’t limit federal law just to what federal dollars are funding,” he said. “When legislators tried to do that, they violated” the amendment.

The group’s position should add an extra wrinkle when the bill is expected to be debated next week by the full Senate. Already, some senators want to restore the building projects, others want to explicitly allow stem cell research to be conducted there, and still others want more assurances that the plan will not happen if there is any chance of embryonic stem research occurring the buildings.

Sen. Rob Mayer, R-Dexter, was one of the three members on the Senate Education Committee who supported the legislation only after the building projects were cut. Mayer said Thursday that he wants to go even further, potentially adding a provision automatically invalidating Blunt’s entire plan if a judge were to strike down the exclusion of certain buildings.

“I think that would alleviate a lot of the fears of the pro-life community,” Mayer said.

Senate Democrats on Thursday complained that the only buildings eliminated from the plan were in districts they represent. Five of those buildings were at the University of Missouri system campuses in Columbia, Kansas City and St. Louis; the sixth was at Harris-Stowe State University in St. Louis.

Democrats noted that while buildings to house startup research companies were cut in those three cities, the Republican-led committee left in place business-research buildings at campuses in Cape Girardeau, Springfield and Maryville — all areas represented by Republican senators.

“This was strictly a political game that was played yesterday,” said Sen. Yvonne Wilson, D-Kansas City, a member of the Senate Education Committee. “The Republicans had to create an illusion to protect” the three GOP committee members who oppose embryonic stem cell research but ultimately voted to send the revised bill to the Senate floor.

Blunt has expressed hope that the eliminated buildings can be restored to the bill, but he also said that he still supports the revised legislation.

The legislation also would combine the state’s two financial-need-based scholarships into a new program, which is expected to provide money to a larger number of students. And it would limit tuition increases to the rate of inflation, unless the state Coordinating Board for Higher Education grants an exception.

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