NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP, abc24.com) - The more than $330 million Gov. Bill Haslam has appropriated for capital projects and maintenance at the state's colleges and universities is a good start considering they haven't received sufficient funding in nearly four years, state officials said Monday.
The Republican governor stressed the importance of adequately funding higher education's capital plans in his State of the State address on Monday evening, saying "access is critical to a successful education program."
"Let me speak plainly, for the last several years we have not been funding higher education's capital plans to the degrees necessary to meet growing student demand," Haslam said. "We need more space to train students in science, technology, engineering, and math - critical subjects in which we must provide more trained graduates."
Higher education officials had discussed a $2 billion bond issue to cover the costs, but some lawmakers felt the move would jeopardize the state's strong credit rating. The proposed funding does contain some usage of bonds, but not nearly as much as was being considered by higher education officials.
"We have to really be cautious about what we do," said House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner of Nashville. "Two billion dollars at this time might not be the right time to do it. We don't have a clue what Congress is going to do."
Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey said a bond for that amount would cost the state millions of dollars a year.
"I think they'll be happy with what we're doing," said the Blountville Republican. "And if more money shows up before the end of the year, maybe we can do a little more."
The last time the state's colleges and universities received a substantial amount of money for capital projects was in 2008. Haslam's proposal would fund the top three projects in higher education:
- $127 million for a science building at Middle Tennessee State University.
- $94 million for a science lab at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville.
- $24 million for a multidisciplinary simulation center at the UT Health Science Center in Memphis.
Haslam said his proposal also includes planning money for new buildings at Nashville State Community College and Northeast State Community College, the University of Memphis, and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.
Finance and Administration commissioner Mark Emkes said the governor's plan is a "step in the right direction."
"It's not exactly what higher education officials had wished for, but at the same time I think they're going to recognize that it's a significant amount of money compared to previous years," he said.
David Gregory, vice chancellor of the Tennessee Board of Regents, said Haslam's proposal allows higher education officials to start working on a list of projects and repairs that had "become sluggish, to say the least."
"It allows the list to get going again," he said. "It allows us to be able to make significant progress on our aging buildings."