Stem cells, MoHELA top legislature’s agenda

JEFFERSON CITY – As the 2007 legislative session comes down to the wire, the jockeying has intensified over everything from tax credits and medical care for the poor to college loans and restrictions on college professors and stem cell research.

Opponents of stem cell research won significant victories by blocking any state funding for medical research. Gov. Matt Blunt’s plan to sell off part of Missouri’s college loan agency to fund construction projects at state universities were stripped of all significant projects to boost life science research. And they put restrictions on the state Life Science Research Board so that grants issued by the board can go only for animal and plant research.

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However, the biggest threat to stem cell research in Missouri went down in flames.

The House Rules Committee voted 4-3 with one abstention on April 30 to kill House Joint Resolution 11. The resolution would have repealed most of Amendment 2, the stem cell research protection measure that voters approved last November.

The resolution would have allowed the legislature to regulate or prohibit stem cell research and would have banned the cloning of human cells to search for medical treatments.

Committee Chairman Shannon Cooper, a Clinton Republican, said the vote sent the message that if opponents of such research want to block it, they need to put the proposed ban on the ballot through an initiative petition.

Jaci Winship, executive director of Missourians Against Human Cloning, the leading opponents of Amendment 2, said she was disappointed that the repeal measure did not move to the House floor where it could receive a more thorough debate.

She said her group was gearing up for an initiative campaign to put a repeal of Amendment 2 on the ballot.

Two Republicans — Cooper and Michael Parson of Bolivar — and two Democrats — John Burnett and Mike Talboy, both of Kansas City — voted to kill the measure.

The public, Burnett said, seemed weary of arguments that Amendment 2 should be overturned because voters didn’t understand the issue.

“We had full and fair debate on Amendment 2, ” Burnett said. “It was one of the longest and most expensive campaigns and both sides made their arguments to the hilt. Anybody interested at all heard from all sides. “

An interesting side issue is the way the arguments by stem cell opponents have changed.

Last year, opponents of Amendment 2 paid for billboards, radio and television ads saying that Amendment 2 would require taxpayers to pay for stem cell research.

This year, after Amendment 2 became law, stem cell opponents changed their tune and insisted that they could put whatever restrictions they want on state appropriations to keep them from funding research on early stem cells.

A Zimmerman Zinger

Gov. Matt Blunt’s university construction plan, which was approved last month, has been called many things in the 16 months since it was unveiled. But Rep. Jake Zimmerman, an Olivette Democrat, coined what is probably the best description of the plan.

During the final debate, Zimmerman described the more than two dozen versions the plan has gone through, the Byzantine political path the plan had followed and the vague nature of some of the projects.

Zimmerman noted that the plan will take $350 million over the next six years from the Missouri Higher Education Loan Authority, an agency known as MoHELA.

Actually, he said, a better name would be “Mo-Deal-a. “

“The deal-making that’s gone on in this sucker puts Monte Hall to shame, ” Zimmerman said. “We don’t know whether it’s a car, a trip to Peru or a goat playing a ukulele on a unicycle. I tend to think it’s the latter. “

‘Intellectual diversity’

A plan to require state universities to issue an annual report on how they promote intellectual diversity and the free exchange of ideas on campus is still alive.

The plan, which critics assailed as an attack on academic freedom, has been significantly watered down in the Senate, with most of its more aggressive elements removed.

The original plan, proposed by Republican Rep. Jane Cunningham of Chesterfield, would have had universities adopt policies to avoid a conflict between students’ class work and their personal beliefs.

Advocates for higher education mocked the bill, saying the whole point of a college education is to challenge students’ beliefs and expand their frame of reference to help them learn how to analyze new concepts and unfamiliar ideas.

The Senate Education Committee changed the plan to require universities to allow students to file a grievance if they believe their rights to a broad learning environment have been violated.

Each university also would have to compile a report on ways it promotes academic freedom and would have to report to the legislature on the number of grievances each receives.

The revised measure, known as House Bill 213, was approved by the Education Committee on May 10. With only five days left before adjournment, the bill’s odds of passing seem dim.

However, Republicans who control both the House and Senate may give the bill an extra push in an effort to show the Religious Right that Republicans are approving parts of their agenda. I’d rate its odds at about 50-50.