U budget plan worthy

Editor’s note: This is the fourth in a series of Monday editorials that will examine the state budget surplus.

So far, legislators appear to take the $1.3 billion state surplus as an invitation to spend freely rather than a call to invest wisely. In the Senate, more than 240 bills were introduced in one day last week, a new record. The House has shown similar spendthrift tendencies, all of which bode ill for the state and the University.
The state should invest a substantial portion of the cash surplus in a tax rebate for new corporate research and capital investment. But these investments in the private sector go only part of the way toward girding the state for the next recession. With about $1 billion left after a wise private investment plan, the state will have abundant resources for funding public sector research and investments in human capital. What this means in simple terms is spending on higher education. Much of the higher education money requested this session is in the form of state bonds, or long-term borrowing. As such, much of the money lawmakers should spend on higher education this year need not come from the surplus.
The University is requesting $290.5 million this year. Just over $41 million of that is the supplemental budget request; the rest is for capital investment. The supplemental portion should be fully funded with the surplus. It will be used to:
ù increase staff and faculty pay;
ù recruit new faculty members;
ù fund biological science, digital technology, multimedia design and agricultural research;
ù improve social science classrooms.
The first three of these initiatives will increase the University’s ability to support new state development with academic research and teaching. The fourth simply helps jump-start the University’s effort to pay down a $1 billion deferred maintenance tab. Clearing that burden will allow administrators to focus on improving the University’s teaching and research missions.
Most of the remaining capital request will also go to funding building and maintenance improvements. Some of the improvements will be simple renovations, but many come in the form of new programs that will occupy currently run-down buildings. Both kinds of capital improvement will allow the University to better serve the state’s needs for academic research and skilled college graduates. The surplus shouldn’t be used directly where bonds will do, but lawmakers should fully fund the capital request. Almost $130 million will pay for new biological sciences and digital technology programs that will provide exactly the kind of research and teaching the state will need in the next decade. The state can afford the kind of borrowing the University needs if its investment helps the state weather the next recession. That’s exactly what the capital request will do.