Student issues at heart of 2010 legislative session

The state faces a budget deficit $261 million.
The state legislature reconvenes Jan. 6, 2011 at the Capitol in Jefferson City. Several issues affecting students could be brought up during the session. Courtesy of the Missouri House of Representatives

The Missouri General Assembly reconvenes for the second part of its 95th session Jan. 6, 2010. These are five issues affecting MU students that could be on the legislative table in the coming session:

In-state tuition freeze

On Nov. 18, Gov. Jay Nixon held news conferences at public universities across the state to announce a partial continuation of the freeze on tuition rates at the state's public colleges and universities.

Under an agreement the legislature and university boards still have to approve, Nixon would propose cuts of only about 5.2 percent to the state's higher education budget, or about $42 million, if the state's public universities agree to not raise tuition for in-state undergraduate students.

The 5 percent cuts are part of plan to reduce the state budget deficit, estimated at $261 million.

Rep. Mary Still, D-Columbia, said she supported the plan, but said she would rather see no cuts to higher education funding because of MU's impact on the local economy.

"We depend on a healthy and just tax system and support from the government on education and health care," she said. "That's the backbone of our economy here."

Texting while driving

In August, a state law banning drivers 21 years old and younger from sending text messages on a cell phone while behind the wheel went into effect.

Missouri became the 22nd state to pass some law against texting, but the only state to assign a specific age limit. Rep. Still is co-sponsoring legislation to extend that ban to drivers of all age groups.

HB 1315, one of several pre-filed bills of which Still is a co-sponsor, would prohibit all drivers in Missouri from sending, reading or writing a text message or electronic message from a hand-held electronic wireless communications device while driving.

Still said she sees texting while driving as a dangerous activity regardless of the driver's age.

"I think people over 21 need it even more than people under 21," Still said. "It's just too much of a distraction and it only takes a second for an accident to happen."

MU budget situation

On Wednesday, UM system President Gary Forsee held a town hall meeting at MU, where he talked about how the MU budget could be affected by state budget cuts.

Forsee said though higher education would not see the same double digits cuts other state agencies and departments had, the system would have to make additional cuts to its budget to keep up with rising fixed costs, such as electricity and building maintenance.

"At the end of the day we have to take a number of cuts despite state funding remaining steady," Forsee said. "The recession is real, it's with us and it is what caused us getting together with the governor and figuring out what to do."

Rep. Chris Kelly, D-Columbia, said the university's budget could be affected by cuts to other areas of the state budget such as Medicaid.

"It'll look like a health care cut," Kelly said. "But it will come home to roost at the University of Missouri."

Voting student curator

Craig Stevenson, former chairman of the Associated Students of the University of Missouri, said he expects the legislature to put forth a bill to give the student representative on the UM system Board of Curators voting powers in its next session.

Stevenson said the bill is necessary because student tuition makes up more than half of the UM system operating budget, effectively owning more of their education than the state.

"The students are paying more than the state is for their education," Stevenson said. "So they need to have representation."

Stevenson said he was confident a bill calling for a student curator with voting power would be put forth in the legislature but said it faces different challenges than the previous bill, which passed both houses, but was vetoed by former Gov. Matt Blunt.

"The biggest hurdle we have is that the Board of Curators will use their political clout to fight the bill," Stevenson said.

University construction bonds

Kelly said he would sponsor another bill to let the state sell $700 million worth of bonds to finance university construction projects like renovations of the MU's Lafferre Hall.

"I'll be going after the bond issue hammer and tongs," Kelly said.

Kelly sponsored such a bill last year after funding from the Missouri Higher Education Loan Association was unable to pay. The bill passed the House with bipartisan support, but it failed in the senate.

Kelly said his new bill would closely resemble the bill Sen. Kurt Schaefer put forth in the upper house last year.

Rep. Steve Tilley, R-Perryville, co-sponsored Kelly's previous bill and said the legislature should pass it both to improve universities and create jobs inexpensively.

"The state misses out on a good opportunity to inject capital into the state, to put people to work, to do projects that are probably going to get done at some point in time anyway," Tilley said.

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