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Politics playing a role in UM policy for employees running for state office

  

COLUMBIA, Mo. — The University of Missouri’s opposition to two bills filed by Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, may be playing a role in the debate as to whether or not employees of the state funded university can seek state political office.

Currently, most state employees must completely leave their jobs when they begin to campaign for state office. Representatives like Rep. Robert Ross, a Republican from Texas County, had to quit his job with the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, knowing that there was no guarantee it would be held open for him, even if his campaign was unsuccessful.

However, in some cases, employees of the University of Missouri System are afforded an entire range of special options that can include continuing to receive their regular compensation, to having their positions held open, and in some cases even continuing to receive a benefits packages, while they run for office.

Ross, who is now in his second term and serves on the House Select Committee on Budget, said he views it as a matter of fairness.

“That policy should apply even-handily to any entity receiving taxpayer dollars,” Ross said.

The question of whether or not University of Missouri employees should receive these special perks has been a large topic of discussion at the University of Missouri—Columbia campus in recent months as university professor Josh Hawley is rumored to be preparing to launch a campaign for attorney general, and the administration has been deciding if or how they can compensate him while he campaigns.

Sources close to the matter say curators and University of Missouri President Tim Wolfe have discussed making changes to the policy of allowing tenured professors to seek office a great deal recently. The board has previously discussed, albeit in closed meetings, making a change in policy to more closely resemble that of many other taxpayer funded departments.

The university is currently in the process of filling a large Sunshine Law request over their deliberations on the matter. The sheer volume of dialogue on the issue has been so large that the first quote that the university provided to fulfill the request was over $15,000. However after a extremely contentious internal deliberations, a smaller amount was requested by the university and the majority of the Sunshine Law request is currently being fulfilled.

The timing has become important as Hawley’s contract for tenure is due to be acted upon in the coming weeks. Sources have confirmed to The Missouri Times that the contract in its current form provides a provision that would allow Hawley to seek public office while maintaining some form of his professional affiliation with the university.

Curators are set to meet via teleconference on the 24th and one topic on the agenda is likely to be discussion of the policy in dispute. The agenda is expected to be released Tuesday, but could be discussed in a closed executive session, instead of in the public meeting, as the issue falls under special protections for personnel conversations.

Hawley’s tenure contract, and the provisions attached to it, has to be signed off on by the Chancellor of the University of Missouri-Columbia Bowen Loftin. He has the ability to execute the contract prior to what could be a policy change, and the drama surrounding the timeline has camps on both sides of the debate on an increasing faction filled campus watching his decision very closely.

There are factions within the university who want to see every accommodation offered to Hawley to run, and especially to run against Schaefer, and many others who have a hard time explaining tax payer funds being expended to for someone to run for office at a time when boosters are also being asked to explain campus security issues raised by ESPN and others, a resounding defeat at the state’s CON committee over and ill planned 2nd hospital effort to serve Fulton residents but built in Columbia, and the hiring of Chelsea Clinton at over $60,000 for a 10 minute speech while purchasing a golf course in the middle of pleading their case for a tax increase.

Time is of the essence, not only Hawley’s professorship, but in the Republican primary, whose season is in full swing with Schaefer, the chairman of the senate budget committee, already with more than $1.3 million dollars on hand for the primary next summer. But Hawley has been supported by the Missouri Liberty Project in efforts that have helped raise his profile around the state so he may have more time than others.

Loftin’s office returned messages stating that they can’t officially comment on what is included in a tenure contract because of existing university policy on personnel matters. The Chancellor’s office also told The Missouri Times that they couldn’t comment on any Board of Curator deliberations because they haven’t been in on those decisions.

If the Board of Curators do approve using state taxpayer funds to pay employees to campaign for state office, the embattled university system will likely be in store for another round critical backlash from state leaders, including the already announced candidates Schafer, and St. Louis Democrat Sen. Scott Sifton. The House Higher Education Chairman, Rep. Steve Cookson, R-Poplar Bluff, has already said he’s considering holding hearings into the matter.

 

Politics Involved in the Deliberations?

Some in Jefferson City are pointing to the university’s opposition to two pieces of legislation field by Schaefer as perhaps the motive for the push to let the tenured Hawley run for office. Two years ago, the UM System voiced opposition to SB 887, which would have required state higher education institutions, including the University of Missouri System, to annually report how much they spend on administration. Currently, university president Tim Wolfe alone makes over $400,000 a year.

However, this past session the university system’s General Counsel Stephen Owens led the university’s spirited opposition to SB 109, also authored by Schaefer which would have changed the way in which higher education institutions used the State Legal Expense Fund, which is used to pay the state’s liabilities in lawsuits.

The attorney general defends the state in lawsuits, and the fund is used to compensate for settlements or judgements in those cases. Currently the Department of Conservation, Department of Transportation, and higher education institutions are able to have their own legal teams represent them. But unlike higher education institutions, the two departments must refund any judgments or settlements paid for by the fund. Higher education institutions are not required to reimburse the fund for any settlements paid out, and such settlements do not impact their budget.

SB109 would have stripped much of the authority to decide whether to settle a case, or fight it in court, from higher education institutions and would have given most of that discretion to the AG’s office.

Many, including Schaefer, questioned how aggressively schools like the UM System fight those suits with the knowledge their budgets are held harmless, and if they simply settle cases without a fiduciary responsibility to the fund the settlements are paid from. The Attorney’s General’s Office who manages the fund has long struggled to maintain its solvency to meet the state’s obligations agrees.

“The Attorney General agrees that the best policy for the state is to centralize responsibility for the guardianship of the Legal Expense Fund,” said Nanci Gonder with the AG’s office. “Attorney General Koster believes that allowing universities to bind the state in legal settlements without an opportunity for transparency or critical review of the decision is not prudent fiscal management.”

The legislation met stiff opposition from several institutions of higher education.

One member of Senate Republican leadership, on the condition of anonymity, gave The Missouri Times an insight on how severe the opposition was.

“Most colleges were against the change, but Owens with the University of Missouri was the loudest opponent. He was so angry about the changes that his opposition almost seemed that it had to include some personal ill feelings for Kurt as much as the for the bill”.

Neither Owens or university President Tim Wolfe returned calls for comment. One member of the Board of Curators, Ann Covington of Columbia, said that she couldn’t comment until the board’s agenda was out.