JEFFERSON CITY - House Majority Leader Gracia Backer proposed an amendment to the state constitution in December that would take budgeting powers away from the University of Missouri System Board of Curators and radically change the way money is distributed. So how did university administrators react?
Backer was surprised to find that one of MU Lobbyist Jim Snider's first reactions to the proposal was to check whether her son had applied to the university.
"I would never use my son as a reason to be motivated to write this bill," Backer said. "I became very hurt over it. Nothing is fair in politics, but this was below the belt."
In statements to the media and to members of House Budget Committee, Backer rejected a rumor published by the Columbia Business Times this month that she proposed the amendment because her son had been denied admission to MU, That rumor is false. Snider said her son had not even applied.
In an interview Saturday, Snider said his inquiry into Backer's son was to squelch rumors regarding her son's application shortly after the proposal was introduced.
In a Dec. 2 letter from Snider to Backer, Snider denies being the source of that rumor, but said he asked Marty Oetting, system director of government affairs, to check whether her son had applied when the legislation was first introduced.
Backer questioned whether it was appropriate for university administrators to have checked into her son's records in the first place.
You can come after me and call me fat and ugly, but don't go after my family," Backer told the House Budget Committee and reporters last week.
However, Snider wrote in the letter that "When I learned your son did not have an interest in M.U. and had not applied, I considered the matter closed. I talked with one legislator about this and other possible motivations. We concluded your son was not an issue."
If passed by the General Assembly and approved by voters, the proposed change in the constitution would allow legislators to budget money to specific colleges, departments and programs within the four-campus university system. The constitution now gives the U.M. Board of Curators discretion to distribute a lump sum throughout the university.
While meeting with Backer, D-New Bloomfield, time and again since the proposal was introduced, top university administrators have said they are willing to be as cooperative as possible with the General Assembly. U.M. system President Mel George even went so far as to order Snider not to lobby against the legislation.
And Backer agrees the university has been cooperative in providing information.
But, Snider refused to answer whether information about Backer's son would have been used to lobby the legislation. "I refuse to answer a hypothetical," he said.
"The only thing that Jim did was ask a question," George said. "I don't think there is anything inappropriate about asking that question." He added there is no question of appropriateness or inappropriateness because there was no application for admission in the first place.
Snider explained that the university did not anticipate the legislation and was originally unclear about the reasoning behind it.
Regarding the issue of looking for a motivation through her son, Snider wrote, "I felt you had concerns generally about student access (whether the son or daughter of a Missouri taxpayer ought to have the right to attend M.U.) and whether a foreign language ought to be required."
House Speaker Steve Gaw said efforts should not be made to discredit legislation based on its motivations.
According to the M.U. admissions office, the law and university rule that applies to student confidentiality is only for students enrolled at the university. U.M. system general counsel Bob Ross declined to discuss rules concerning internal access to student admission applications.
He also said there have not been any lobbying efforts by the university against the proposed change in the constitution, also known as House Joint Resolution 3.
Gaw said there ought to be rules that ensure confidentiality to those who apply to the university. "Applicants need to feel that records which should be confidential remain confidential," he said.
But calling Backer's proposed amendment a "draconian change" that tries to fix a system that is not broken, U.M. Curator Paul Combs said it was not inappropriate for Snider to look for motivations to the bill.
Backer has been openly critical of increased admissions standards approved by the U.M. Board of Curators for students entering the university last fall.
During a speech in October Backer used her son as "an example of a good child, with parents who could afford to send their child to a public university, but because of the admissions standards could not," Backer said. Admissions standards stipulate that incoming freshmen need to have at least two years of a foreign language. Backer's son had one year.
"I should have never used my son as an example in the first place," she explained to members of the House Budget Committee last week. "I am very saddened that I was viewed as having a vendetta."
Backer said the amendment was prompted by concerns about the curators' redirecting funding after it was allocated for specific purposes.
Backer told the Budget Committee that she would be willing to alter the legislation with input from committee members. The committee has yet to pass it on for approval by the House. "The present amendment goes way beyond what it should," she said.
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