JEFFERSON CITY — State Senate Democrats on Wednesday tried a new strategy to block the vote of a bill that includes the governor’s controversial plan to sell off some of the assets of the Missouri Higher Education Loan Authority to fund capital projects: they offered a long-winded series of amendments.
Close to 20 amendments were offered, most by Democrats. Most were defeated, including language that would add a voting student curator to the University of Missouri System Board of Curators.
- MOHELA would pay $350 million over six years to the state; most would go to new buildings at public colleges and universities.
- Tuition increases would be capped at the inflation rate for universities where tuition already is above the state public school average. Universities with below-average tuition could raise costs by slightly more.
- A new Access Missouri scholarship would annually provide up to $2,150 to public university students. They must keep at least a 2.5 grade-point average.
Their plan was partially foiled when, six hours into the discussion, the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Gary Nodler, R-Joplin, withdrew the amended bill and offered a new version. But that did not stop the debate, which continued into the night.
Senate Floor Leader Charlie Shields said he allowed the debate to go on for so long because he trusts the intention of most of the amendments, but some of them seemed like they were meant to stall a vote.
Sen. Chuck Graham, D-Columbia, talked during most of the amendment debates. “I’m really not filibustering today — yet,” he said at the beginning of the debate. As of midnight, the debate was still going strong, with Graham offering still more amendments.
However, if Democrats choose to filibuster, Republicans will vote to end discussion and immediately go to a vote, Shields said. He is confident that the bill has the 18 votes needed to pass.
The current version of the bill not only authorizes the sale of MOHELA assets but also punishes universities for raising tuition past the U.S. Consumer Price Index, gives more authority to the Coordinating Board for Higher Education and creates a new financial aid program. These are long-standing elements of the bill.
The bill, which was in its sixth version since it hit the Senate floor and 33rd version in all, has had many significant changes since it was first discussed in the Senate Education Committee.
Most noticeable is a change in the use of the funds that will come from the $350 million MOHELA sale itself. The first version was intended to offer funding to life sciences and research centers.
Now the purpose has shifted to funding for agriculture projects to persuade anti-abortion Senators to vote for the bill. Funding for life sciences research might have funded stem cell research.
This shift is the main reason Graham has protested the current bill. He said Wednesday that previous versions of the bill have unconstitutionally blocked funding to stem cell research.
In response, Sen. Jason Crowell, R-Cape Gireadeau, said: “The constitution does not say that we have to fund stem cell research. We’re just saying that we don’t want to fund these. We’re not offering any restrictions. We just chose what we want to fund and what we want to fund. This is what we do here.”
Graham conceded that this version does not have any reference to the controversial topic.
Other senators have openly opposed the bill because they say the purpose of MOHELA is to offer low-interest loans and not to fund building projects.
“There are other ways to fund building,” Sen. Joan Bray, D-St. Louis County, said during a 30-minute spiel. “I suggest we forget about this bill and work to truly send our students to college in the future.”
If passed, the bill would have to go through final passage in the Senate and be approved in the House before it can go to the governor and become law. There are four weeks left in the session.