Capitol hashing out U funding

by Jim Hammerand

State lawmakers began negotiating Wednesday how much debt the state should take on to pay for capital investment projects this year, including the University’s $206.1 million wish list.

Rep. Dan Dorman, R-Albert Lea, held the gavel – which alternates between the two chairmen – in Wednesday’s meeting and set the agenda. Faced with a $41 million gap between the House and Senate bills, Dorman called higher education “a reasonable place to start.”

“The area where there’s not a lot of differences Ă– is higher education for both the University of Minnesota and (Minnesota State Colleges and Universities),” Dorman said.

The bonding bill would issue debt for University capital improvement projects such as building renovations and new construction. The House and Senate have passed their own versions of the bill, which include a medical bioscience building, a business school for the University’s Duluth campus, expansion of the Carlson School of Management and a new science and student services building where the Science Classroom Building now hulks.

The Senate and House had not agreed on a budget target beyond wishing to keep it below the billion-dollar mark, but Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s finance commissioner said Pawlenty would be willing to sign a bill in the $960 million range.

University Vice President of Services Kathy O’Brien weathered questions from legislators who wanted to know why the University’s priorities seemingly changed based on private dollars pledged toward projects, such as the $10 million donation to the Carlson School project.

Sen. Keith Langseth, Senate capital investment chairman, said a medical bioscience building should be a top priority, not only for the University, but also for the state. Pawlenty recommended the state pay for 10 percent of that project request. Both houses have approved the requested $40 million.

“(The medical bioscience building) is the most important project in the entire request. … The University is making some breakthroughs there in diabetes and Alzheimer’s,” said Langseth, DFL-Glyndon.

Rep. Denny McNamara, R-Hastings, asked how many projects funded last year had been contracted out by the University, an issue Finance Commissioner Peggy Ingison raised in response to the governor’s MNSCU asset preservation recommendation.

O’Brien said that while only one out of three projects funded last year was under contract, by July that figure would increase to nine out of 10. She said the University tries to complete those kinds of projects during the summer, when there isn’t as much activity on campus.

While legislators talked of construction, Sen. Wes Skoglund, DFL-Minneapolis, had his mind on demolition – of the Science Classroom Building.

“We can’t agree on building a new building, but we can agree on tearing (the Science Classroom Building) down,” the University alumnus said.

Legislators have said this bill will be the last to be signed this session, which ends May 22.