Session’s end could put U buildings on the back burner

A special session action would be needed to keep capital projects on course.

by Evelina Smirnitskaya

Unless state legislators take action during a special session, five building projects at the University of Minnesota will have to try again next year for funding.

Each year the University plans a separate budget for all building and infrastructure work, which includes a separate capital budget request to the state Legislature.

But as the yearâÄôs legislative session ended without approving a state budget, all University projects that included capital request money will likely have to be put off until next year, said Brian Swanson, budget officer at the UniversityâÄôs Office of Budget and Finance.

Two-thirds of the costs for these projects would be funded by a state bonding bill, unlike other smaller projects that are fully funded by the University. To be included in the University capital budget, a project must have a definite source of funding, which the University Board of Regents approves if the project is greater than $500,000.

A new physics and nanotechnology building was at the top of the requested funds list, with more than $51 million requested from the state.

The plan was to break ground on construction this year, and have the building completed by 2013, but now the project might be postponed. Its only salvation is legislative approval of a bonding bill that would include money for the project during the special session, which is unlikely.

 âÄúItâÄôs still up in the air,âÄù said Steven Crouch, dean of the College of Science and Engineering.

The request also included money for light-rail mitigation, a new American Indian Learning Resource Center for the UniversityâÄôs Duluth campus, updates to the Itasca Biological Station and Laboratories and general maintenance.

The UniversityâÄôs 2012 budget, previewed by the board at its May meeting, included the five major projects because state funding was still pending. Now that the regular session has ended, however, the projects will not be included in the University budget when the board takes action at the June meeting.

Swanson said if funding is granted during the special session, the projects will go before the Regents this fall to be included in the University capital budget as amendments.

However, if no bonding bill is passed, it will be up to the incoming University President Eric Kaler and the Board of Regents to determine which projects should be brought to the Legislature again, said Tim Busse, spokesman for the Office of University Services.

These projects were left over from last yearâÄôs legislative session. Traditionally, the University makes capital requests on even-numbered years, when the Legislature takes up bonding bills. Since only part of the UniversityâÄôs 2010 capital request was approved, another request was made for 2011, Swanson said.

Crouch spent six years advocating for the physics and nanotechnology building and working on its proposal. After it was approved by the board as part of the capital request, the project got $4 million from the Legislature for the design, with the expectation of more funds coming along at the next request.

Busse said the Legislature has supported all projects on the request in some way in the past.

âÄúAll of the projects included in the capital request âÄî theyâÄôre each important in their own way,âÄù Busse said.

For example, Crouch believes that the physics and nanotechnology building will receive the needed funds because it was recognized to be an important investment by the Legislature and former Gov. Tim Pawlenty, he said.

Crouch said that if the project does not go through this year, he expects it to be UniversityâÄôs top priority for next yearâÄôs capital request.

Nevertheless, shelving a project could incur additional costs.

Matt Stringfellow, the physics and nanotechnology project manager, said that inflation is a concern and could increase the cost of the project, forcing the University to seek even more money from the state.

University spokesman Dan Wolter wrote in an email that the UniversityâÄôs Government and Community Relations has been in âÄúregular contact with legislators and the GovernorâÄôs Office.âÄù Yet, with little known about when the special session will occur, the possibility of a bonding bill is uncertain.