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Scuttling of MOHELA plan shows Bearden's key role

State lawmaker makes no apologies for aggressive tactics.

PHOTO BY JB FORBES The leadership of the Republican Party confers in the back of the Missouri House Thursday during the debate over campaign reform and ethics. From left: Rod Jetton, Speaker of the House; Tom Dempsey, Majority Floor Leader; and Carl Bearden, Speaker Pro Tem.

By Matthew Franck

St. Louis Post-Dispatch

5/10/2006

He has been chastised on the Senate floor as arrogant and accused of committing the legislative equivalent of extortion.

And yet, when Bearden, R-St. Charles, discusses the demise of perhaps the biggest bill of the year, he makes no apologies for his unflinching tactics.

"I stayed the course, " he said.

This is Bearden's classic, bare-knuckles approach.

Unyielding in debate and gutsy in strategy, Bearden is widely regarded as among the most influential legislators under the Capitol dome. But his confrontational approach is viewed as both an asset and a liability in legislative negotiations.

Most recently, Bearden's refusal to back down from his controversial higher education bill is credited by many with killing a plan to extract $450 million from the Missouri Higher Education Loan Authority, or MOHELA.

Higher education officials said Bearden's bill could rob public colleges and universities of state funding, while diverting new spending to private institutions in the form of scholarships.

But the resistance didn't stop Bearden and other House leaders from setting up a kind of legislative standoff. If the Senate didn't pass Bearden's bill, the House wouldn't approve the MOHELA plan. Typically those kinds of ultimatums are whispered in backroom negotiations; Bearden had the audacity to air his demands at a Senate hearing.

That strategy ended with a fatal stalemate Friday, with MOHELA in tatters and Gov. Matt Blunt left to pick up the pieces.

But Bearden has no regrets. To hear him tell it, the deal fell apart because he took a stand for scholarships.

"If people want to blame me for putting students first, I'll gladly accept that blame, " he said.

Spence Jackson, the governor's communications director, said he wasn't prepared to blame anyone in particular for the collapse of the MOHELA plan. That, he said, is something for Bearden and other House leaders to explain.

"But it's disappointing they didn't see the tremendous potential that this initiative has, " he said.

A key adviser

As speaker pro tem, Bearden is the second-in-command of the Missouri House. Often, the job is little more than a ceremonial position. But Bearden is regarded as a key adviser to House Speaker Rod Jetton, R-Marble Hill, in setting the Republican policy agenda.

And several House members of both parties say the title understates his true role.

It's not just that Bearden is nearly always officiating in the House, with his booming voice supplying the soundtrack to the chamber's deliberations. Many sayBearden's true influence is in serving as a kind of ideological core of the Republican majority, especially when it comes to financial matters. As the former budget chairman, he is still regarded as the shadow architect of the House's budget decisions.

Known for his stocky build and dominating debate style, Bearden often overpowers floor discussion. To many Republicans, he is a commanding force, pushing the House in gutsy and creative directions.

"Carl is a free thinker, " said House Majority Leader Tom Dempsey, R-St. Charles. "He comes up with bold ideas and challenges people."

But to his detractors, Bearden is pushy, incapable of meaningful compromise, and ultimately a harm to his own causes.

"He's audacious, but he's not accomplishing anything, " said Sen. Chuck Graham, D-Columbia.

Beyond that, Graham and other Democrats question Bearden's ethics, most specifically for favoring legislation that could benefit Lindenwood University, which employs Bearden as a paid fundraiser. Bearden also is on the payroll of a firm that lobbies the Legislature.

Bold measures

But even Bearden's harshest critics don't deny his fearless impulse to grasp lightning-rod legislation with no apparent worry about being jolted.

While his colleagues complain about rising state spending, Bearden offered a measure that would limit spending by a strict constitutional edict.

While his fellow conservatives sound off about a culture that antagonizes Christians, Bearden steamrolled a resolution through the House that would change the constitution to reinforce rights on public prayer.

While his fellow Republicans gripe about the quality of big city schools, Bearden has boldly called for a $40 million tax credit program that could send 10 percent of urban students to private schools.

Earlier this session, the bill irked nearly every public school organization, which equated it with vouchers. The measure would fully reimburse taxpayers who donate to a scholarship fund that sends urban children to private schools.

For Bearden, the bill is about empowering families to force a change within public education. He said his controversial higher education bill was cut from the same cloth.

The higher education bill would demand that the state triple its spending on college scholarships within 10 years. If the goal is not met, public colleges and universities could lose 2 percent of their funding, a crippling penalty in the eyes of higher education officials.

As Bearden made passage of this bill a condition for the House's approval of a MOHELA's spending plan, his critics pointed to a potential conflict of interest.

Many say Bearden's bill would enrich Lindenwood University, a private school where Bearden works as a fundraiser. Estimates suggest that half of the scholarships would be spent at private schools, essentially funneling new higher education investments away from public institutions.

Bearden dismissed the accusation that he is advocating for Lindenwood.

"I will be paid no more, no less than what I get paid now if (my bill) passes, " he said.

Bearden also brushed off other ethical questions, such as the fact that one of his sources of income is DK Government Solutions. The firm, founded by former Rep. Don Kissell, lobbies the Legislature.

Bearden says his work for DK Solutions has nothing to do with lobbying fellow legislators. Instead, he said, he focuses on local government, specifically St. Charles County, where he had served eight years on the council.

Tactics draw fire

Ethical questions aside, many -- including some Republicans -- question whether Bearden's tactics add up to an effective strategy.

Critics point out that none of Bearden's big bills is advancing. He lacks the support of his own party on the private school bill, and it took an emergency Republican Caucus meeting to rally a thin majority for his higher education bill.

"He wants to give the impression that he's powerful and mighty, but he's a weak leader, " said Rep. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, D-St. Louis, an ardent foe of the tax credit bill.

Bearden says his ideas are often so big that they take more than one session to prevail. In the meantime, he expects crossfire.

"When I go after the things I believe in, I also recognize that with that is going to come some howitzers and small-arms fire, " he said.

And while some say his combative strategy helped doom the MOHELA plan, Bearden hasn't doubted his decision to stare down the Senate by demanding passage of his bill.

"I didn't think it was so confrontational, " he said. "I just thought I was telling the truth."

But now that the MOHELA plan is in the legislative scrap heap, some are second-guessing Bearden's tactics.

"There are times when sheer muscle will prevail, " said Senate Majority Leader Charlie Shields, R-St. Joseph. "The majority of the time it takes a smooth hand and willingness to compromise. He tried to muscle it through, and it didn't work."

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