State Capital Bureau
JEFFERSON CITY - The Missouri House sent a message to the University of Missouri yesterday - worth nearly three-quarters of a million dollars.
During final House debate on the Higher Education Budget legislators adopted three amendments cutting the budget committee's recommendations for the funding for UM in retaliation against University policies and employee behavior.
"It was a clear message and the message was received," said UM System lobbyist Jim Snider. He would not comment any further.
The cuts would mean $720,000 less state money for the University for 2003. Combined with the $49 million in reductions previously recommended by the House Budget Committee, the University budget would be reduced by more than ten percent from last year.
At the center of the debate was the School of Journalism and KOMU-Channel 8, the University-owned NBC affiliate in Columbia.
Rep. Bubs Hohulin, R-Lamar, offered an initial amendment to cut the UM budget by $5 million.
He cited discontent with KOMU news director Stacey Woelfel and his policy forbidding reporters from wearing red, white, and blue ribbons or flags while working for the newsroom as motivation for the amendment.
The issue has been one of controversy ever since the policy was made public following Sept. 11. Some legislators said the policy was an attack on students' first amendment rights, and questioned Woelfel's political motivations.
Hohulin made it clear he wouldn't have a problem going further in his attack on the University.
"I would love to force the university to sell the station," Hohulin said. "We could use the money."
Legislators eventually agreed, in a 97-33 vote, on a $500,000 cut.
In doing so they made good on some legislators' promises made last fall to take KOMU's policy into account during the budget process.
Shortly after the no-ribbon policy became public, Rep. Matt Bartle, R-Lee's Summit, wrote Woelfel an e-mail that said "I am going to be evaluating far more carefully state funding that goes to the School of Journalism."
During Wednesday night's debate Rep. Chuck Graham, D-Columbia and Chair of the Appropriations Committee on Higher Education, noted that the UM Board of Curators took a position against the policy in October.
"Are you aware that that position really meant nothing?" Hohulin said.
In addition to funding, the University also lost some of its earlier legislative defenders. After a day of hearing criticism of UM, House Budget Chairman Tim Green, D-St. Louis County, said he would not oppose Hohulin's proposal.
"I think the man's (Hohulin) got a very valid point and I'm at the point in the budget process where I'm ready to let the University defend itself," Green said.
Reps. Vicky Riback Wilson, Chuck Graham and Tim Harlan, all Columbia Democrats, voted against the cut.
Harlan said he was concerned about the practice of sending political messages through budget cuts that students would eventually have to pay for.
"If the cut sticks I think that's an additional burden the students will have to bear," Harlan said.
Harlan also said it was obvious during the debate that some legislators were unclear about the importance of KOMU to the Journalism School. He said the station played the same role for the school as the cow herd plays for the School of Agriculture.
Legislators said their understanding is that the policy is still in effect.
"Until the policy is changed it's still an issue," Hohulin said.
Woelfel was unavailable for comment, and the newsroom refused comment on whether or not the policy remained in effect.
Prior to the KOMU debate, legislators first lashed out at individual University employees on both the Kansas City and St. Louis campuses.
The first amendment removed $120,000 from the UM System budget - an amount identical to the salary of Betty Van Uum, legislative liason and registered lobbyist for the University of Missouri - St. Louis.
According to Rep. Pat O'Connor, D-St. Louis County, Van Uum is "too political" to be a University employee.
The second strike, worth $100,000, was directed at Harris Mirkin, chair of the Political Science Department at the University of Missouri - Kansas City.
Mirkin's writings on pedophilia and sexuality have faced intense scrutiny from some legislators since last weekend's Kansas City Star article examining his work.
"Some of his writings are being used by pedophilia groups," said Rep. Matt Wright, R-Springfield, who initiated debate on the issue. "I think it's sad that a person with his opinions is in a position to influence people."
Mirkin replied that the Kansas City Star article misrepresented his research.
"I would think that the University and the state would support the freedom to critically examine issues," said Mirkin.
Some UM students said there is more buried in the message than simple budget cuts.
"I think that they have sent a message, but I think the message that they sent is that they do not value higher education in this state," said MSA Senate Speaker Ben Sheplar. "I hope that the voters will send a message back to them in November that that's unacceptable."
The higher education budget faces one final vote in the House before being sent to the Senate.