State legislature opens with higher education reform, emphasis on economic development
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State legislature opens with higher education reform, emphasis on economic development

Date: January 7, 2009
By: Chris Dunn
State Capitol Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - Faced with a struggling state economy and strongly Democratic statewide leadership, the 95th Missouri General Assembly convened on Wednesday for its first regular session.

The swearings-in of 34 senators and 163 representatives and election of chamber officers characterized this first day of the state legislative session. However, the continuing authority of the UM-System Board of Curators may be endangered by a bourgeoning push to centralize the higher education system by bringing all state universities under one board.

In his opening address to the Senate, Senate President Pro Tem Charlie Shields, R-St. Joseph, spoke about tough economic times in Missouri and repeatedly referenced the need to reform higher education in the state.

Shields called the higher education system "disorganized," and said he would like to see the governing model altered to resemble other states' systems.

Missouri currently has a Coordinating Board for Higher Education, which has been in place since 1972 and which coordinates state budget requests from all state universities. Exempted from the board's authority is the University of Missouri, whose administrating body is the UM-System Board of Curators. Like the UM-System Board of Curators, the coordinating board is made up of a member from each congressional district. 

"At the very least in Missouri, we have to increase the power of the coordinating board," Shields said.

Rep. Chris Kelly, D-Columbia, agreed with Shields' assertion. Kelly said he supports combining all state universities under a board of curators because it would make state universities more efficient. However, he said he does not think it will ever be done because some schools would oppose it.

In 1971, a citizens' commission to restructure state government supported uniting all universities under one governing board. Several state institutions, including the UM-System, fought against the effort on the claim that it would weaken competition and cause some schools to lose their regional identity.

The legislature created the Coordinating Board for Higher Education in 1972, but gave it little actual power. Most Missouri universities continue to have a governing board.

Sen. Kevin Engler, R-Farmington, agreed with Kelly that the current system is inefficient.

"You wouldn't run a business like that, have different locations all over doing the same thing," he said.

Additionally, leadership in both the House and Senate chambers reassured quick action to spur job creation and called for bipartisan cooperation to achieve especially economic growth.

House Speaker Ron Richard, R-Joplin, highlighted his proposed "family recovery plan" and its emphasis on job creation, health care and tax relief during his opening address.

But first he appealed to the representatives to work for and demonstrate a strong work ethic and spirit of bipartisan cooperation.

"Just as I asked the members who have served on my committee to put aside their differences for the common good, I will ask the same of you as a legislative body," Richard said. "We pride ourselves on being the House of the people. This year, we will make that much more than a convenient piece of political jargon."

This bipartisanship extends to working with the governor, Richard said in a later press conference.

"The governor and I have spoken twice," Richard said. "The second conversation that we had was about economic development and job creation. We believe that job creation is our No. 1 goal."

Shields also said stimulating the job market was a priority.

"We know that our budget problems are really coming down to job creations," Shields said.

He additionally stressed the need to run the state like a business. After acknowledging the state's precarious economic situation, Shields said elected officials must enact a long-term plan and not concentrate only on balancing the budget from fiscal year to fiscal year. He also challenged the senators to take advantage of the recession to work toward ultimately stronger solutions.

"We have the opportunity to use this crisis to make difficult decisions, but more importantly to focus on a long-term strategy to build the state Missourians want," Shields said. "Our system has given us the results we are getting. In short, we are a $23 billion organization without a long-term vision and operating without the benefit of a strategic plan."

The Senate Democratic Floor Leader said bipartisanship is necessary to achieve any significant progress in economic development.

"I believe that these economic issues and this economic crisis transcend partisan differences," said Sen. Victor Callahan, D-Jackson County. "All of these problems require a bipartisan solution and immediate action. We do not have time really to bicker. This economic situation demands that, and demands no less."

Contributing to the statehouse-wide push for bipartisanship, House Democratic Floor Leader Paul LeVota of Jackson County said partisanship and favoritism must end in the House.

"The task of the minority caucus is to keep the majority caucus accountable for working for solutions together," LeVota said. He also called for cooperation in health care and economic growth, and later cited economic development as the major task at hand before the legislature is dismissed for spring break.

The 95th General Assembly will reconvene Thursday at 10 a.m., and will continue through May 15.