Lawmakers may fund university buildings

Missouri lawmakers appear to agree with Gov. Jay Nixon that public colleges and universities should get more money next year. But some lawmakers want to direct part of that money toward building improvements instead of devoting it to larger operating budgets as proposed by Nixon.

Those differing opinions about how best to aid higher education could be one of several key issues facing lawmakers as they begin piecing together a spending plan during the next few weeks.

Funding cuts during the recent recession have left colleges and universities with smaller core budgets than they had a decade ago. And many campuses also have a backlog of building maintenance and construction plans.

Nixon has proposed more than $120 million in new higher education funding for the 2015 budget, about one-third of which would be distributed as a performance-based increase to the institutions’ core budgets. Other money would increase scholarship funding and expand the number of classroom slots available for certain professions, such as mental health workers.

But House Budget Committee Chairman Rick Stream prefers to spend more on building projects, with less of an increase for operations. He wants to take advantage of a 2012 law that authorizes the state to fund half of the cost of campus building projects that generate a 50 percent match through private donations.

Over the past several months, five universities have submitted a total of eight applications for projects seeking an aggregate of nearly $43 million in state funding to be matched with private donations.

Nixon didn’t include any money for the projects in his budget.

“If we passed the bill, and then the universities went back and took our advice and guidance and actually followed through with it, I think they ought to be rewarded,” said Stream, R-Kirkwood.

Missouri law allows the state funding to go toward new construction, renovation and maintenance at public colleges and universities, so long as the projects aren’t for athletic facilities, parking garages or student housing. Colleges and universities are barred from using their operating budgets, bonds or student tuition and fees to come up with their half of the money.

“To me, this is a good way to encourage private donations,” said state Sen. David Pearce, R-Warrensburg. “And it’s a way the state can get some much-needed projects done without having to fund 100 percent of it.”

Pearce is a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee that helps write the budget and also was chairman of the Senate Interim Committee on Capital Improvement Assessment and Planning, which released a report in December recommending use of the matching-grant program.

The state Coordinating Board for Higher Education has received applications from all four campuses of the University of Missouri system plus one from Missouri State University.

The biggest is an $11.1 million request from the University of Missouri-Columbia to help construct a 70,000-square-foot “Applied Learning Center” for the business college. The Columbia campus also is seeking $6.1 million for renovations to an engineering building, $2.8 million to design plans for the music school and fine arts facilities and $1.5 million to help construct a “teaching winery” that would include movable winemaking equipment and walk-in coolers.

The University of Missouri-St. Louis is seeking $10 million in state aid for the first phase of a new business college building. The University of Missouri-Kansas City wants $7.4 million to help build a new “Free Enterprise Center” that could serve as the “visual gateway” for people approaching the campus from the nearby Country Club Plaza.

Missouri State University is seeking $2.3 million to help develop a new “student admissions and success center” that would include an auditorium and office space and serve as “a starting point for new visitors to campus.” Missouri University of Science and Technology is seeking $1.2 million to replace a facility built in 1949 at its experimental mine near Rolla.

University officials say all of the projects already have the required amount of private donations or pledges.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, said he doesn’t believe the state has enough money for all of them but could fund some. His preference is to put the money toward buildings that could be completed instead of developed in phases.

Schaefer also is weighing Nixon’s request for increased operating budgets.

But he said: “When we have a little bit of extra general revenue, I think that’s the appropriate time to look at deferred maintenance, to look at capital issues. …The problem with expanding the operating budget is once you do it, you’re doing it in perpetuity.”

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