JEFFERSON CITY - One signature is all that stands in the way of a new name for Southwest Missouri State University.
Over the objections of a vocal, bipartisan group of lawmakers the House overwhelmingly voted to pass the Senate's version of a bill that would change the name of four Missouri universities and allow a fifth to change its name upon the approval of its governing body.
MU graduates Minority Leader Jeff Harris, D-Columbia and Reps. Bryan Pratt, R-Blue Springs, and Brian Yates, R-Lee's Summit, crossed the aisle to oppose the measure while the bill's House sponsor Rep. B.J. Marsh, R-Springfield, was able to enlist some Democratic support as well.
With floor debate stretched over two days the 120-35 vote total surprised even the bill's House sponsor Rep. B.J. Marsh, R-Springfield, who said he expected only about 90 votes.
Marsh, whose voiced cracked while he spoke with reporters after the vote about the effort exerted in pushing the name-change through the General Assembly, said it felt good finally be on the winning end.
"We deserved it, and we got it," he said.
Last session the House rejected a similar measure as Republican leadership attempted to sidestep the filibuster of former Sen. Ken Jacob, D-Columbia.
Gov. Matt Blunt has made the renaming one of his top legislative priorities, and with the governor hailing from southwest Missouri, his signature turning the bill into law is expected to be a formality.
In a news release, Blunt stated that the new name better describes SMSU's role while ensuring "that the University of Missouri will continue to be the state's premier land grant institution as well as the state's premier research institution."
The Senate sponsor of the measure, Sen. Norma Champion, R-Springfield, said she expected the signing would occur in conjunction with celebrations for SMSU's 100th anniversary on March 17.
With supporters highlighting what they said would be extensive economic growth resulting from the bill, Harris criticized Blunt for "pushing a personal project on the tax payers of Missouri."
"This name change won't help one more student receive a college degree," Harris said. "We would be better served if his focus was on looking where we are as a state and looking how we can make higher education more affordable."
Rep. Jack Goodman, R-Mt. Vernon, said SMSU's growth in enrollment and quality now warrant the "Missouri State" designation. In addition to better classifying the school, Goodman said the name change would increase the funds available for higher education by attracting more out-of-state students who must pay higher tuition rates.
"New students bring new revenue," he said. "The result is an excellent combination of quality and affordability."
The bill's language prevents SMSU from seeking additional funding based on the change and restricts the graduate and doctoral programs the Springfield campus.
With the UM system and SMSU making concessions throughout the process, Rep. Steve Hobbs, R-Mexico, said he hoped the General Assembly would remember what the UM system had given up.
"For this name-change, there was a great sacrifice by the University of Missouri, and I hope the legislature is going to reciprocate by being more favorable when its needs come up," he said.
The bill overcame a Senate filibuster organized by Sen. Chuck Graham, D-Columbia, after UM system President Elson Floyd told Graham to permit the bills passage in an e-mail.
"I can say this: the alumni from the University of Missouri do not give up on anything," Champion said. "I can understand that, but I think things got blown way out of proportion."
Some of the behind the scenes rancor surrounding the issue surfaced near the end of the proccess when, during a House committee meeting about the measure, Republican lawmakers said an MU student and lawmaker were insulting in opposition testimony.
Several Democrats have criticized Blunt for exercising undue influence on the issue while many Republicans have said the UM system has engaged in strong arm tactics of its own. Both Blunt and UM system officials have denied the charges.
Nonetheless, several opponents of the name-change have criticized Floyd for backing out of the fray.
"I am so disappointed with the UM system," Pratt said. "President Floyd and the curators, I think, dropped the ball in not fighting for their name."
Pratt said that if another university wanted to use Southwest Missouri State University 100 years from now, he had no doubt that the president of Missouri State University would fight the proposal.
Much of the opposition centered around diluting funding from the UM system, confusing the mission of SMSU, eliminating the regional university system by making SMSU a lone, second tier university behind MU.
"If SMSU is not going to take on the mission and programs of a statewide university, they shouldn't get the name," Rep. Judy Baker, D-Columbia, said.