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2010 August 25 - 12:00 am

MONEY TREE: Mo. Auditor Urges End of Political Influence in Construction Decisions

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — The state Department of Higher Education should have been more involved in picking projects for a college construction program and additional coordination is needed among colleges, according to reviews released by the state auditor’s office.

Auditor Susan Montee urged elected state officials to work closely with the Department of Higher Education to determine what future construction projects would most help Missouri’s colleges. She also said there needs to be more unity among colleges over funding and recommended giving more power to the State Coordinating Board of Higher Education, such as allowing it to enforce changes to degree programs.

“We have allowed political influence to come in and play way too high a figure,” Montee said during a news conference.

Department of Higher Education spokeswoman Kathy Love said the coordinating board already can recommend duplicative programs that could be eliminated. She said the department believes schools should at least be allowed to appeal decisions about cutting programs before the decision is final.

The audits focused on coordination within the Department of Higher Education and a 2007 college construction plan.

As examples of dislocation within higher education, Montee pointed to several schools that spend more than $100,000 each to lobby the Legislature and the method used to pick which building projects were included in the 2007 construction plan.

The review found that three priority construction projects for the Higher Education Department were not included in the construction plan, but it did include 16 that were not considered a priority by the school or department.

The college construction plan called for the Missouri Higher Education Loan Authority to sell assets and transfer $350 million over six years to the state. Of that, $305 million was to go for construction at four-year colleges and universities, $30 million was for community colleges and $15 million was for the Missouri Technology Corporation to attract high-tech companies.

The loan authority made an initial $230 million payment in September 2007, but has delayed several payments since then because of the credit crunch and changes in federal laws.

Gov. Jay Nixon, who as attorney general opposed the idea of tapping the student loan provider’s assets, in 2009 suspended about a dozen projects because of funding shortages.

In a written response to the audit, the state Office of Administration said the process for selecting the campus construction projects followed Missouri’s standard procedure for deciding what higher education building and repair projects to complete. Lawmakers approved a budget and consulted with the Department of Higher Education, lobbyists, constituents and others for information.

The Office of Administration, which is led by a gubernatorial appointee, said it did not have reason to believe funding from the state loan authority would fall short. After payments slowed, the office said Nixon consulted the Department of Higher Education about what projects to delay but that the governor ultimately is responsible for the decision.

A spokeswoman for the Office of Administration declined further comment.

Montee’s audit also questioned an administrative fee levied by the Missouri Technology Corp. that has diverted some of the money it received through the 2007 plan.

The quasi-state entity questioned the auditor’s procedures. The Missouri Technology Corp. also said the fund is a necessary accounting reserve and that the reserve level was set after a discussion with a national organization for non-profits specializing in economic development.

Comments: editor@ccweek.com

Also from CHRIS BLANK, Associated Press Writer

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