Harris opposes MOHELA bill

The key Democrat from Columbia is concerned about the plan’s fiscal viability.
Tuesday, February 20, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 10:24 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

JEFFERSON CITY — The governor’s plan to sell off some of the assets of the state’s higher education loan authority gained more opposition Monday as a major proponent of the plan withdrew his support.

In a letter to Gov. Matt Blunt, Rep. Jeff Harris, D-Columbia, said he was dropping his support because last week, Liscarnan Solutions LLC, the third-party consulting firm that approved the fiscal viability of the MOHELA plan, now says MOHELA might not be able to fund the $350 million needed for the plan.

“When that expert witness changes its opinion, that is a very substantial and very serious thing,” he said. “It means the entire financial underpinning of this deal — of this Lewis and Clark Initiative is now called into question.”

Harris also added that this might affect the interest rates on MOHELA loans.

“Based on the fact that MOHELA’s own advisers think this plan could jeopardize MOHELA’s ability to continue to provide low-interest loans to students, I can no longer support the sale of MOHELA assets to fund this initiative,” Harris wrote in his letter.

Harris suggested that new buildings that would be funded by the sale under the proposed bill could instead be funded by using the state surplus. He said that though he is a Democrat, he hopes Blunt considers his suggestions.

“I think it’s time to shift gears and go back to the drawing board and get a new plan,” Harris said.

Sen. Gary Nodler, R-Joplin, who sponsors a broad higher education bill that includes the MOHELA plan, said his bill will not change because of Harris’ opposition.

“I don’t adjust what I’m doing based on what other legislators are doing,” Nodler said.

Extended debate by Democrats in the Senate has blocked a vote on Nodler’s bill. Debate began on the bill last week.

He added that he expects support of his bill — which also gives more authority to the Coordinating Board for Higher Education and caps tuition — to change as it makes its way through the Senate.

“This is a fluid situation, and support shifts depending on whatever the form of the legislation is at the moment,” Nodler said. “I think it’s worth asking questions.”

Representatives from Blunt’s office were not available for comment Monday night.

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