U’s building boom challenged


The University of Minnesota plans to spend about $1 billion in building new facilities over the next six to 10 years, which is at least as much as the state will face in a budget deficit.

Amid a grim state budget outlook, the University will face an uphill battle at the Capitol getting its projects funded. And while it’s unlikely, development that has already been funded could be on the chopping block.

The University is in the midst of a building boom which, when orchestrated during a financial crisis, can be a double-edged sword.

Building facilities can create construction jobs and draw in money for the state economy, but it can also cost the state large amounts of taxpayer money. The state typically picks up two-thirds of the tab for construction of University facilities.

The University already has some of its major projects funded such as TCF Bank Stadium and the biomedical research buildings nearby, but there are also some major building projects that are waiting for funding.

A request of about $26 million for the construction for a new Bell Museum is one of the main items the University will be requesting from the Legislature this session, Vice President of University Services Kathleen O’Brien said.

The request passed the Legislature last session, but was vetoed by Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

In 2010 the University will request money for a new physics and nanotechnology building, O’Brien said. The building is planned to have a final cost of about $80 million.

Building University facilities could be part of a statewide stimulus plan that focuses on investing in infrastructure, O’Brien said.

“The question is: is the political leadership viewing public investments in infrastructure as a means to stimulate the economy?” O’Brien said.

But with the large deficit, things are going to get ugly at the legislature this session, said Rep. Tom Rukavina, DFL-Virginia, the chairman for the Higher Education and Work Force Development Policy and Finance House committee.

“There’s going to be some tough financial decisions to be made this session,” Rukavina said. “I think everything is back on the table, even the bonding proposals that have been passed.”

Rukavina said his major concerns going into the session are getting funding for repairs of Folwell Hall and working with the University so tuition doesn’t spike too high.

In past economic hard times the state has taken the easy way out by pulling money out of the system, which in turn, has caused the University to raise tuition, Rukavina said.

“I don’t know how much more college students can take as far as the debt we’ve imposed on them since 2002,” Rukavina said.

State support for universities has been dropping nationwide for the past 20 years said, Brian Flahaven, director of government relations for CASE — an organization that represents alumni communications and development at educational institutions.

From a national perspective, there have been many universities that have decided to put their building plans on hold during the financial crisis, and higher education is more vulnerable to budget cuts than other state funded operations, Flahaven said.

“When they face a budget crunch, higher education is typically what lawmakers have control over and target first,” he said.

But cutting large amounts of money from higher education is not the answer to the state’s economic woes, said Sen. Sandra Pappas, DFL-St. Paul, the chairwoman for the Higher Education and Policy Senate committee.

Pappas is a proponent of repairing existing facilities at universities, not necessarily building new ones, when the state’s economy is under duress.

Pappas said she supported the University’s request for the Bell Museum last year, but was not sure how it would hold up at the Legislature this session.

“If they want money for the Bell Museum, I don’t know how that will fair,” Pappas said. “I think it’s more likely that we would give repair or replacement dollars.”