U, Legislature disagree on bonding

Legislators are focusing on new building, while U officials continue to prioritize upkeep.

Roy Aker

Recommendations to set aside millions of state dollars for construction projects at the University of Minnesota are on the forefront at the state Capitol, and legislators must compromise on funding amounts in the coming weeks.

University officials say funding for building maintenance and upkeep is the institution’s top priority, but state legislators want to focus on providing funds to construct new buildings.

Several bonding bills have surfaced this session, and all vary in size and content. A Minnesota House committee heard a recent proposal Wednesday that undermines the University’s 2014 capital request — a trend across all proposals introduced so far.

Rep. Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul, is leading the House’s bonding effort. She said she wishes more state dollars could go toward construction, maintenance and upkeep at the University, but the state has many competing needs and funds are limited. This year, the House’s bonding budget is capped at $850 million.

Hausman’s newest bill includes nearly $52 million to construct a new Bell Museum and Planetarium facility on the St. Paul campus, a proposal she’s pushed for nearly a decade.

The bill still shortchanges the University’s request by nearly $109 million overall, but it includes money to renovate the Tate Laboratory of Physics, construct a new Wellness Center on the Crookston campus and build a new Chemical Sciences and Advanced Materials Building on the Duluth campus, like Gov. Mark Dayton’s proposal and the House’s initial recommendation.

“While we are grateful for the House’s bonding recommendations for three of our projects, we must have a higher level of funding for our top priority, asset preservation, or [the Higher Education Asset Preservation and Renovation fund],” University President Eric Kaler said in a statement released after the House bill’s introduction Tuesday.

The proposal doesn’t include funding to construct a new Microbial Sciences Research Building on the University’s St. Paul campus and recommends only $30 million for HEAPR.

“It’s generally been that they reduce the amount of HEAPR to fund projects,” said Brian Swanson, chief financial officer for University Services.

The chancellor of the University’s Duluth campus, Lendley Black, said in an email statement Wednesday that he’s pleased the recent House legislation included bonding dollars for the new Duluth campus facility.

He said he hopes the Senate agrees that constructing the facility is important. Dayton did not include the project in his proposal.

“This building will provide much-needed laboratory space for research and teaching, while expanding partnerships with industry,” he said in the statement.

Senate recommendations are due next week. Soon after, both chambers will compromise, consider Dayton’s proposal and ultimately decide on which projects to fund and how much each will receive.

Beyond bonding

Last week, a Senate higher education committee recommended a one-time $2.5 million boost for Duluth’s operational budget, which is down 50 percent from last year.

Sen. Terri Bonoff, DFL-Minnetonka, said the funding increase is less than in the past because lawmakers are focused on getting bonding dollars for the Chemical Sciences and Advanced Materials Building, which they feel affects students more directly.

The finance report also included $250,000 to establish an apprenticeship pilot program for the University’s system and an increase in state grant tuition caps to subsidize students’ living and miscellaneous expenses.