Biomedical facilities funding debated

The Legislature will decide whether to invest $233.6 million in the project.

Jake Grovum

Even with a projected $935 million budget deficit for the state on the horizon, the University is asking for nearly $520 million between its capital bonding request and biomedical research program.

Designed to construct four research facilities in the area surrounding TCF Bank Stadium, the $292 million biomedical program has enjoyed widespread support from the Legislature.

Many have hailed it as a potential boost to the economy – creating jobs and expanding the biomedical industry in Minnesota – but some take issue with the project’s cost.

With the budget deficit looming, funds are tight at the Capitol, Chairman of the Higher Education and Workforce Development Policy and Finance Division Tom Rukavina, DFL-Virginia, said.

“To me it’s a question of fairness,” Rukavina said at a Capital Investment Finance Division hearing last week. “I ask for a lot of things at Christmas too, but I don’t get them.”

The state would pay $233.6 million of the total cost, while the University would pay $58.4 million, another aspect of the plan Rukavina objected to.

“I think we can squeeze a little more out of you and still help you out,” he said to University officials at the hearing. “There’s only so much money to work with and right now you’re asking for a really huge chunk of money.”

Between funding for the stadium, another University medical project in Rochester and the biomedical research plan, Rukavina’s committee would carry $70 million per biennium in the higher education committee, funds “that could go for a lot of other things,” he said.

“I know of a little community paying $200 a month, if we don’t help them, to go to the bathroom,” he said.

Despite Rukavina’s sentiment, chairwoman of the Capital Investment Finance Division Alice Hausman said in light of the budget forecast, the state should be looking to invest.

“This is not a time, I would suggest, when we are turtles and fold our heads into a shell and sit there quietly,” she said. “This is the time to go boldly forward.”

At the hearing last week, a number of representatives from research firms like Medtronic spoke in support of the bill on the University’s behalf, but they also stand to gain from the project.

Under the legislation, the University would be required to make the labs available to research firms for a fee, and would forfeit patent rights to discoveries that “do not involve its innovative intellectual contributions.”

With the cost of the project taking center stage of late, and private interests set to potentially benefit, the lack of private funds directly involved in the program could be an issue.

However, University Chief Financial Officer Richard Pfutzenreuter said fundraising would be a priority in footing the University’s share of the bill.

Aside from being an economic plan, the program would serve more practical purposes for University research, Frank Cerra, senior vice president for health sciences, said.

The program would create new buildings for magnetic imaging, cancer, heart disease, infectious disease and neuroscience research, to be constructed between 2008 and 2013.

While faculty productivity has “never been higher,” Cerra said, the University is out of open space to expand research.

“We can recruit faculty,” he said. “The problem we have now is we’re without a space to recruit them into.”

The Capital Investment Finance Committee included the request in the bonding bill, and the House is expected to debate it on Thursday.