MOHELA plan gets new twist

T.R. Hanrahan

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo.(AP) Gov. Matt Blunt and legislative leaders have come up with yet another new approach to finance college construction projects with money from Missouri’s student loan agency, The Associated Press has learned.The new plan leaves in place the basic concept of taking $350 million over several years from the Missouri Higher Education Loan Authority to fund new or improved buildings at almost all public colleges and universities.But it abandons a deal reached last September to pass the money through the Missouri Development Finance Board. Instead, it would give legislators limited power over which buildings to fund.The new approach also would give MOHELA specific authority to use its money for capital projects with educational purposes _ a more direct attempt than in past versions to satisfy legal concerns.And the revised plan removes any references to embryonic stem cell research _ an attempt, at least, to mute the heated debate over restrictions on how the buildings could be used.The details of the plan were confirmed to The Associated Press by several senators and MOHELA’s executive director in a couple days of interviews culminating Friday.Blunt and sponsoring Sen. Gary Nodler each assured the plan now has the support of a majority of the Senate, where the legislation has been stalled for a couple of weeks.”This time, I really think it’s going to work,” said Nodler, R-Joplin.Added Blunt: “I actually think that the vote total of the people in favor of it is increasing.” Then he paused and added: “I don’t just think that, I know that.”The governor’s higher education plan already has undergone numerous twists.Blunt first proposed in January 2006 to sell Missouri’s student loan agency as a way to finance college buildings, scholarships, professors and research. He then embraced an alternative by the loan agency’s board to sell a portion of its loans _ leaving the agency intact while generating $450 million for the state.That plan failed to pass the Legislature last May.Then Blunt’s administration and the student loan agency agreed on a new $350 million plan last September, which would bypass the Legislature while using the low-profile state finance board to pass the MOHELA money onto universities. That finance board attached its own condition _ that none of the buildings could conduct embryonic stem cell research.Facing intense legal pressure from Attorney General Jay Nixon, Blunt and MOHELA board members ultimately decided to attach another string to their plan _ requiring it to receive legislative approval in 2007 to take effect.But legislative consensus has been elusive, leading to the latest revision.By eliminating the finance board’s role, the new plan effectively eliminates its restriction on using the money for embryonic stem cell research.Instead, Nodler said, Blunt will submit a revised project list to the Senate Appropriations Committee as part of this year’s supplemental budget process. Because of the procedure used, lawmakers could reduce or eliminate funding for the buildings Blunt recommends, but they could not add new items to the list.”It is our hope and expectation that the project list will be clearly enough delineated that no rational person could suggest that any of this funds embryonic stem cell research,” Nodler said.Missouri Right to Life has said that would be difficult to ensure because of a constitutional amendment approved last November by voters that protects the right to conduct embryonic stem cell research and prohibits governments from denying funding because of such research.The revised plan also may not address concerns about its financial effect on Missouri’s student loan agency.Last week, the analyst firm Liscarnan Solutions LLC backed away from a previous endorsement of the plan’s financing. It warned that potential changes in federal student loan policies could affect MOHELA’s long-term ability to make payments to the state.Democratic Sen. Chuck Graham, of Columbia, expressed a mixture of support and concern Friday about the new plan.”I think they’re finally dealing with some of the major flaws, and I think they’re moving in the right direction,” said Graham, of Columbia. But in light of the Liscarnan warning, “we’re going to have to figure out whether (MOHELA) has the capacity to do that and survive. Because if they don’t, there’s going to be significant opposition.”The student loan agency already has $210 million set aside to make an initial payment to the state. Executive Director Raymond Bayer Jr. has said he believes the agency also can meet future quarterly payments, but has the flexibility to cancel those if financially necessary.Bayer described the latest twist as encouraging.”This might be the mechanism that allows the plan to work,” he said.