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House committee sends name-change to floor

February 22, 2005
By: Chris Blank
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - With one lawmaker supporting the renaming of Southwest Missouri State University as Missouri State University telling a witness he "was pissed off," with that witness's testimony, the name-change bill could head to the governor's desk after as few was two House floor votes.

The issue has been filibustered twice by Democratic senators from Columbia, but the most recent attempt was broken last week after UM system President Elson Floyd sent an e-mail to Sen. Chuck Graham telling the senator to permit a vote.

In exchange for changing its name, SMSU would be barred from duplicating the research, mission and professional programs of MU and would be required to continue to coordinate with MU in offering postgraduate degrees.

But the calm lawmakers said they expected in a House Higher Education Committee hearing was broken by the testimony of MU student Greg Chase. Chase began his remarks by identifying himself as Higher Education Committee Chairman Rep. Gayle Kingery. He then asked the Popular Bluff Republican if he felt his name had been stolen; Chase also said committee members were not qualified to vote on the measure if they did not know all of its implications.

Chase's remarks and tone prompted Rep. Scott Rupp, R-Wentzville, to reprimand him for testimony that included recitation from two MU yearbooks while the university was called Missouri State University and poster-sized pictures of campus buildings named after administrators while MU was called Missouri State.

Rupp, who apologized to Chase before the meeting's adjournment, said he believed the tone escalated because of Chase's "cheesy" argument that SMSU would be guilty of false advertising if it presented itself as a statewide university and an "offensive" remark that the committee was unqualified to vote on the measure.

"If you're going to make a point, fine, but don't piss off the people on the committee that you're trying to convince," Rupp said.

Former UM system Board of Curators member James Sterling, who is also a journalism professor, drew the ire from some of the committee's Republicans. He testified that the only reason Floyd agreed to the compromise was because Gov. Matt Blunt threatened a $50 million to $150 million cut to UM system state appropriations.

Paul Sloca, a spokesman for the governor's office, called Sterling's allegation "an absolute lie" and said it was unfortunate that a journalism professor would not check his facts before making a statement.

House Speaker Pro Tem Carl Bearden, R-St. Charles, said Sterling was a "less than credible witness for throwing out wild accusations."

Sterling responded to the criticism after the meeting. He said he was sitting next to another individual to whom Floyd explained the threat. Sterling said he would not identify the individual because "he didn't want to bring him into this."

A spokesman for the UM system said Floyd was not contacted by Blunt or anyone speaking on behalf of Blunt about such a threat.

"There was no conversation between Dr. Floyd and the governor, and I don't have any idea what conversation Mr. Sterling is speaking of," spokesman Joe Moore said.

Sterling also said the change would effectively elevate SMSU to a tier below MU and a tier above the other regional universities in the state, which would cheapen the degrees received from other regional schools.

"All these schools will be pushed down a level," Sterling said. "Simple arithmetic says that if you're number two and one of the other number two's moves up, you're now number three."

Chase and Sterling's free-flowing testimony prompted at least one legislator to support the name-change. Rep. Tim Flook, R-Liberty, said he was noncommittal on the issue but the "heat" from people associated with MU and the UM system led him to sway in favor of the bill.

"There has been a lot of strong arming by the Mizzou people on this issue," he said. "They are talking about the governor's influence on this, but I've barely spoken to the governor about this. This has dwindled down to one school simply concerned about its bragging rights."

The measure's sponsor, Sen. Norma Champion, R-Springfield, said it was rewarding to see something she has pushed for several years near passage and said she hoped future discussions would be calmer.

"I just hope that before people throw accusations around that they take the time to really document it," she said. "We've heard a lot of accusations without base, before this people were talking about SMSU trying to takeover (the University of Missouri) Rolla."

Sterling and Chase said they opposed the change because the state could not bear the cost of another statewide university despite a compromise in which SMSU promised not to seek additional funding.

The bill will be heard by the House Rules Committee Wednesday afternoon, which will decide how long floor debate will last and could be sent to the House floor as soon as Thursday but likely will not be debated until Monday or Tuesday next week.

A similar bill was rejected by the House last session thanks in part to resistance from within the Republican caucus. Reps. Bryan Pratt, R-Blue Springs and Bob Johnson, R-Lee's Summit, testified against the bill, which suggests the name change faces significant hurdles on the House floor.