Rising rivers parallel Mo. legislative sessions

Sunday, May 13, 2007 | 1:30 a.m. CDT; updated 7:55 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

As I write, the river is rising. It’s not really reasonable to expect that it will reach the House and Senate chambers in the state Capitol. Still, without torturing the metaphor, I think we can say that a flood is a lot like a legislative session.

Both are forces of nature, sometimes controllable by human activity but often not. Both can be frightening in their power, horrendous in their damage and expensive in their aftermath. In the event of being threatened by either one, the wise person collects valuables and loved ones and heads for higher ground. Sometimes, though, when the river or the legislature overtops the levees, you can’t escape.

By the time you read this, the real river’s crest probably will have passed Jefferson City. The legislature will be on the rise for one more week. Damage is already visible, with more in prospect.

It’s a pretty good rule of thumb that when we see the boy governor and his Republican playmates celebrating, we should check on the lifeboats. Last week the celebration focused on what we can only hope turns out to be the worst piece of legislation to pass this year. I refer, of course, to what was once grandly called the Lewis and Clark Initiative, more recently known, at least to some Democrats, as Mo-Steala.

This is the bill that diverts $350 million or so from MOHELA, the agency that was created to expand student loan opportunities for needy families. The money was originally to go largely for capital investments intended to boost life science research and generate high-tech jobs. That’s all been washed away.

What remains on the governor’s desk is a hodgepodge of handouts, little for either life science or job generation and a couple of provisions that have made a bad idea truly monstrous. The losers include our university, public higher education in general and, of course, the people.

One of the monstrosities in the bill is its limitation on public universities’ ability to increase tuition. This is one of those things that seems plausible until you examine it closely. The reason — apparently not understood in the legislature and, I’m afraid, not widely known to the public — that universities have been forced to hike tuition above the rate of inflation is the persistent failure of the legislature to support higher education. The new limitation is not accompanied by any pledge to pick up the tab.

Another monstrosity is the new scholarship program the governor praises. Sure, it’s bigger than the two programs it replaces; but have you noticed this: Most of the money will go to students who attend private colleges. That’s right; this bill allows scholarships of up to $2,150 for students in public institutions and $4,600 for those who go to private colleges.

Back in 1993, after the water went down, my son and I spent a day in Rocheport helping to remove the sandbags. It was hard work, hot and gritty. And it stunk. Flood residue always demands heavy lifting. It always stinks.

Who do you suppose will have to clean up after the legislature in 2007?

George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian.

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