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Blunt alters MOHELA plan, removes life sciences projects



Jefferson City, MO – Governor Matt Blunt on Thursday dropped a number of projects to the list of college construction projects he wants funded by the sale of student loans.

The state's student loan agency, MOHELA, plans to sell $350 million in loans to raise cash for the projects. But there was some objection from opponents of embryonic stem cell research about money being used to raise buildings that would conduct such research.

Two projects now being dropped are $5.5 million dollars for the UM-St. Louis Center for Emerging Technologies, and another $5.5 million for a facility at Harris-Stowe related to the Cortex bio-tech area being created near mid-town.

They have been replaced by numerous agricultural projects at universities around the state. In the case of the two St. Louis universities, they'll see boosting in other projects to make up for the loss of funding for the life sciences. UMSL will now get $28.5 million for construction at Benton and Stadler halls. Harris-Stowe is now in line for $15.7 million for its early childhood and parent education center.

Blunt's economic development director outlined the project list Thursday, acknowledging it would have a smaller affect on Missouri's economy than Blunt's original idea but also promising it still would "deliver an enormous amount of money to higher education."

The total price of the plan remains the same $350 million, which would be siphoned over several years from the Missouri Higher Education Loan Authority.

But the method of transferring that money to higher education institutions has changed. And so has the list of projects that would benefit.

Axed from the project list are the proposed medical and business research buildings that were objectionable to opponents of embryonic stem cell research. That includes the largest project in the former plan, a Health Sciences Research and Education Center at the University of Missouri-Columbia.

Added to the list are agricultural projects in various parts of the state, an autism center and more funding for technical and community colleges.

The latest plan essentially scraps an agreement reached last fall by Blunt's administration and the MOHELA board under which the money would have been channeled to the colleges through a relatively obscure state development board.

Instead, the student loan agency is to pay the money into a new state fund from which lawmakers would make appropriations, similar to how other state expenditures are made.

The new approach also would give MOHELA specific authority to use its money for capital projects at public colleges and universities an attempt to satisfy legal concerns that Blunt's plan went beyond the scope of the student loan agency's mission.

Those legal changes and the creation a new fund to receive MOHELA's money are expected to be debated next week by the Senate as part of a broader higher education bill that also caps university tuition increases and folds the state's two main financial-need-based scholarships into a new program.

The revised plan appears to have to two main goals assuaging the concerns of some lawmakers opposed to embryonic stem cell research and broadening the base of support by adding projects around the state.

Rather than a setback for Blunt's original plan, Department of Economic Development Director Greg Steinhoff characterized the revision as "a terrific result" that now has strong bipartisan support in the Legislature.

Blunt said in a statement that lawmakers have been enthusiastic about the new proposal.

"I believe he has successfully maneuvered through a challenging political environment to come up with a very strong proposal," said Senate Education Committee Chairman Gary Nodler, R-Joplin, the lead sponsor of the bill.

But some lawmakers remain opposed. Sen. Chuck Graham, D-Columbia, decried the elimination of medical research projects as a "desperate attempt" to win votes from anti-abortion lawmakers.

"They have run away from being a leader in the life sciences industry," Graham said.

Others said the new approach still doesn't address their concerns that the plan may not be financially feasible. They worry that taking money from MOHELA could hamper its ability to offer low interest rates and loan forgiveness programs to future Missouri students, though MOHELA executives insist otherwise.

Opponents also cite a recent caution from analyst firm Liscarnan Solutions LLC that potential changes in federal student loan policies could affect MOHELA's long-term ability to make the payments to the state.

"While the project list has changed, the fundamentals of the bill haven't," said Sen. Wes Shoemyer, D-Clarence.

The new approach was drafted with the help of Sen. Jason Crowell, R-Cape Girardeau, an opponent of embryonic stem cell research. Crowell believed language in the old plan restricting MOHELA money from going to buildings that could conduct such research likely would have been struck down in court because of a constitutional amendment approved last November by voters.

That amendment guarantees that all federally allowed stem cell research can occur in Missouri and bars the government from denying money to entities because they conduct stem cell research.

The new plan makes no mention of stem cell research.

And with the new project list, Crowell said, "We've gotten away from many of the controversial possibilities of where you could find government dollars being used for embryonic stem cell research."

Sen. Rob Mayer, R-Dexter, another embryonic stem cell research opponent who had expressed concerns about Blunt's plan, said Thursday that he likely would support the revised plan.

"It looks like a good investment for the state," Mayer said.

But the changes failed to satisfy Missouri Right to Life. The state's largest anti-abortion group remains convinced that the voter-approved constitutional amendment could still result in money going to embryonic stem cell research.

"We still oppose the MOHELA deal. There's no way from what we see to keep that money from going to life-destroying research," president Pam Fichter said.


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