Lawmakers debate issues but push little legislation

Student loans and life sciences:

The biggest controversy of the last two years involves the partial sale of Missouri’s student loan agency, the Missouri Higher Education Loan Authority (MoHELA).

Based in Chesterfield, the once-obscure lending agency burst into the news in January 2006 when Gov. Matt Blunt proposed to sell the agency and use the proceeds to fund life science research facilities at state universities. Blunt pitched the idea as Missouri’s great leap forward into the top tier of biotechnology.

Critics — mostly Democrats — immediately balked at the idea of gutting the agency that provides low-cost loans to Missouri college students. Attorney General Jay Nixon questioned whether the plan was legal.

The plan went through dozens of changes and was scaled back to something MoHELA can probably afford. But the critics who gutted the plan were actually Blunt’s political allies in the anti-abortion movement. Missouri Right to Life and its friends in the legislature refused to bless the plan as long as it funded any life science facility on the off chance that scientists might want to study stem cells.

Blunt capitulated, and removed all spending on biotech facilities.

Sen. Joan Bray, a University City Democrat, said the current plan involves little more than maintenance projects and does nothing to achieve the plan’s original goal.

“At least when it started this plan had the admirable goal of making Missouri a leader in biotechnology,” Bray said. “Now it’s just a pork buffet.”

Sen. Jeff Smith, a St. Louis Democrat, inserted into the bill his plan for a program to encourage bright students to teach in failing schools. Known as the “Missouri Teaching Fellows,” the program would give students at the top of their classes a stipend of up to $21,000 over five years if they work as teachers in unaccredited school districts.

The bill was approved by the Senate and has been sent to the House.

Elections and Passover:

Rep. Jane Cunningham, a Chesterfield Republican, has filed a bill that would prohibit local officials from scheduling the spring municipal elections during Passover. It would require the election to be postponed until the first Tuesday following the last day of Passover if voting would conflict with Passover celebrations.

The bill was prompted by the April 3 elections, which fell on the second night of Passover. That would require observant Jews to vote earlier with an absentee ballot or forgo voting at all.

Cunningham said the current system is particularly unfair to observant Jewish candidates because it could force them to stop campaigning on Election Day. It also limits the rights of Jewish campaign volunteers who want to work for a candidate on Election Day, she said.

The bill defines Passover as “the period from the fifteenth day through the twenty-second day of the month Nisan using the Hebrew calendar.”

However, the bill’s prospects this year look bleak unless Cunningham can add the measure to another bill. The bill was not filed until March 29, and as of April 29 had not been assigned to a committee.


A wide-ranging bill designed to restrict access to abortion services was blocked at least temporarily by Bray and fellow Sen. Jolie Justus of Kansas City. The two Democrats kept talking for hours until the bill’s sponsor withdrew it.

The bill, Justus and Bray said, would put women in danger, water down sex education in schools and do nothing to reduce unwanted pregnancies. Justus said the bill would lead to more women undergoing dangerous, illegal abortions and lead to more crisis births in which young mothers abandon their newborns in trash bins.

And the bill would create a program that provides counseling to women with unintended pregnancies but would ban any discussion of birth control to help those women avoid future pregnancies, she said.

Tax credits:

Rep. Trent Skaggs, weary of Republican policies that slash Medicaid but hand out tax credits, blocked expansion of one credit by baiting the social conservatives who dominate the House.

Skaggs, a Democrat from a Kansas City suburb, suggested prohibiting credits “for any film production that does not promote Missouri values (including) the sanctity of marriage and abstinence from illegal controlled substance usage.”

“Those are the issues that they run their campaigns on,” Skaggs said. “So I was trying to give them a choice: They could stand up for Missouri values or support the film industry and the jobs that could potentially create.”

Skaggs argued that the Republican-controlled legislature should not be subsidizing Steven Spielberg when it had eliminated health care for more than 100,000 poor people.

Social conservatives had no stomach for voting to subsidize movies that don’t promote Missouri values. The bill was pulled from the floor.

“I don’t know why they were so afraid,” Skaggs said with an impish grin. “I guess they just don’t want to make tough decisions.”