General Assembly's role in MOHELA debate ends
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General Assembly's role in MOHELA debate ends

Date: May 7, 2007
By: Tina Marie Macias
State Capitol Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - Republicans call it the "largest student reform" and Democrats call it "Mo-Steala," but either way, the General Assembly's debate over the bill that authorizes the sale of some of the assets of the Missouri Higher Education Loan Authority is over.

In a vote of 91-64, the House gave final approval to the wide-spanning higher education bill that includes the MOHELA sale. The bill also caps tuition, gives more power to the Coordinating Board for Higher Education, creates a new scholarship fund and prohibits a Missouri university from turning away potential political science professors who do not have a post-graduate degree as long as they have spent eight years in the General Assembly.

All three Columbia senators, including Rep. Ed Robb, R-Columbia, voted against the bill. Robb, who has continuously come out in support of the bill said he could not vote for a bill that caps tuition.

"I've never voted for a ceiling before," he said, adding that "it's going to pass no matter what."

Robb said there will be repercussions to his decision to vote against the bill. Last week he announced that he was working with the governor to restore $32.1 million to MU's Ellis Fischel Cancer Center. Robb said he will be "in trouble with the governor," and will have to wait and see if the governor will continue to support the restoration.

"This is a very bad issue," Robb said of the bill. "The concept was great. I didn't like the details."

Although the bill overwhelmingly passed the House, House Democrats did not give up without a fight during the short two hours alloted for debate.

Leading the opposition was Rep. Clint Zweifel, D-Florissant, who offered an amendment to remove all mention of the MOHELA sale, saying that the sale will be fiscally irresponsible.

But Rep. Carl Bearden, R-St. Charles, who is the House handler of the bill, said an analysis of the sale has been done and the whole bill will help students.

"This amendment guts the ability of students to enjoy technological advances that they'll need in the workforce," Bearden said.

Another Democrat, Rep. Paul LeVota, from Independence referred to the MOHELA plan as the "cash grab of 2007."

"What we're doing is killing the golden goose that lays the golden eggs," LeVota said. "This has been mishandled from the beginning and this is a bad idea."

But that Zweifel's amendment failed, along with every other amendment that was offered. By striking down each amendment and passing the bill exactly how it came out of the Senate made the House's vote final.

Although the bill has now left the hands of the General Assembly, Zweifel said he will not let this issue go without a fight.

On Monday he announced he has prepared a referendum petition that will put the bill to a vote if it can garner sufficient signatures.

"It's important to put this out there to give voters a chance," Zweifel said. "Consistently 70 percent of voters are coming back and saying 'this doesn't pass the smell test.'"

But Sen. Gary Nodler, R-Joplin, who authored the bill that includes the MOHELA plan, said he has never seen a poll to that effect and it "depends how the question is asked."

He doesn't think Zweifel will garner enough votes and said this is just another way to delay the bill.

If Zweifel can gather signatures from at least 5 percent of voters from six of Missouri's nine congressional districts by Aug. 28 -- the date the bill and the MOHELA plan is set to go into effect -- then the bill would be put to a vote in November 2008.

"The signatures can be gotten," Zweifel said. "There's no question about that. There's two types of people at this point on their opinion of MOHELA -- there's one group that thinks this is really bad policy and they're voting against it and there's one group that thinks this is really bad policy and they're voting for it."

The bill must now be signed to the governor, who is in Boston right now, in order for it to become law. Two appropriations bills that include the MOHELA-funded buildings must also receive final approval and a signature from the governor.