Blunt hits tough times over stem cells, urban tax credits

It’s been a rough four weeks for Gov. Matt Blunt.

The losing streak began in late February with the sexual harassment scandal involving the state’s director of agriculture. It gained momentum when the House rejected Blunt’s proposal to hand out tax credits for urban students attending private schools.

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And it peaked when Blunt capitulated to opponents of stem cell research and stripped the life sciences projects from his biotech building plan for state universities. Despite Blunt’s concession, the building plan still languished as individual senators continued to oppose the plan and the changes seemed to energize the plan’s critics.

For Jewish community leaders, Blunt’s troubles were a mixture of cheers and groans. Marlene Hammerman, state public affairs chairwoman for the National Council of Jewish Women in Missouri, said she was pleased that the House voted down the private school tuition tax credits.

The credits would transfer tax money from public schools to private schools, including many affiliated with religions. While acknowledging that many Orthodox Jews support such credits, Hammerman said the Jewish community as a whole opposes them because they breach the divide between government and religion.

The NCJW, Hadassah and other Jewish groups lobbied against the tax credits during a trip to Jefferson City on Mar. 6. The outcome of the vote provided a valuable political lesson, Hammerman said.

Many urban Democrats — who traditionally support many Jewish positions — this time took the opposite stance and supported the tax credit bill. Conservative rural Republicans — who often exasperate Jewish leaders by blurring the line between church and state — were more receptive on this issue and ultimately provided the margin necessary to defeat the bill.

“It really proves the theory that you never burn bridges,” Hammerman said. “It was an unlikely coalition.”

On stem research, one unlikely ally has been the governor. Blunt, a Baptist who opposes abortion rights, has bucked many of his fellow Republicans and Missouri Right to Life to support research on early stem cells.

Batya Abramson-Goldstein, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council, noted that Blunt worked last year for passage of Amendment 2, the ballot initiative that protects all forms of stem cell research in Missouri from political interference.

But in an effort to win Senate approval for his university construction plan, Blunt capitulated to critics of stem cell research by scrapping university research labs and shifting the funds toward less controversial classroom space.

The new plan boosted funding for projects at the University of Missouri’s Rolla and St. Louis campuses, two regional universities and community colleges throughout the state. But it dramatically reduced projects previously planned for the University of Missouri-Columbia. And it eliminated projects to nurture biotech businesses in St. Louis, Kansas City, and Columbia. In all, $113 million worth of life sciences research projects were scrapped.

“People may not be happy about it, but it’s an accommodation to the political reality in this building,” said Sen. Gary Nodler, the Joplin Republican who sponsored the plan. “Legislators are not interested in getting embroiled in a controversy (over stem cell research) that is not appropriate to this proposal.”

Abramson-Goldstein said the step back from efforts to find new medical treatments through stem cell research was unfortunate.

“We feel strongly as a community that stem cell research is an important issue and should be encouraged in any way possible,” Abramson-Goldstein said.

Hammerman said the NCJW spoke in favor of Amendment 2 while visiting the Capitol. But the group has taken no position on the governor’s university building plan because the source of the money is the partial sale of Missouri’s student loan agency.

“The NCJW strongly supports stem cell research,” Hammerman said. “But we are also supporters of funds for students in need of college loans.”

Blunt’s losing streak was touched off by the disclosure in late February that his director of agriculture, Fred Ferrell, had kissed and hugged female employees, referred to some as “show dogs” and suggested to another woman that he wanted to see her in a wet t-shirt contest.

Blunt privately reprimanded Ferrell, but kept him on the job until February when the investigative report became public as part of a lawsuit.

Democratic lawmakers questioned why Ferrell wasn’t fired when his conduct was confirmed and why a subsequent attempt to pay a settlement to the target of his comments was handled outside of normal channels.

State officials acknowledged they attempted to settle the harassment accusations by paying $70,000 last month to Heather Elder, who worked in the Agriculture Department’s Division of Animal Health. The $70,000 payment — which Elder refused to accept — came from the Agriculture Department budget intended for equipment and general expenses.