Legislature aims for higher bonding for higher education

Hopeful sign
Bell Museum Director Scott Lanyon's dream for a new building on the University of Minnesota's St. Paul campus needs $24-million in state money.
MPR Photo/Art Hughes

Gov. Tim Pawlenty's proposed bonding bill would send about $130-million each to the University of Minnesota and MnSCU. That is a fraction of the $270-million MnSCU is seeking and the $225-million request from the U of M.

Despite that gap, Scott Lanyon scans his hopeful eyes over an urban St. Paul meadow, covered by drifted snow, some clunky outbuildings and a dense stand of aspen trees. Lanyon, the director of the U of M's Bell Museum of Natural History, sees the 13-acres as the setting for a new Bell Museum, with enough space to accommodate traveling exhibits and a sculpted field of native plants and trees, none of which is possible in the current Minneapolis campus building.

"When the public expresses interest in genetically modified organisms, when the public expresses interest in biofuels or global climate change," Lanyon said. "We need to be able to respond to that with exhibits and educational programs. We have that opportunity because we have incredible expertise here at the University of Minnesota. But we don't have the facility that allows us to take advantage of that."

A new building would quadruple attendance and will cost the state $24-million, Lanyon said. The governor proposes no money for the Bell.

The university is also asking for almost $50- million to replace the Science Teaching and Student Services building on the Twin Cities West Bank campus.

Overall, it looks like we're just about holding our own and maybe losing a little bit of ground.

The university's newest regent, former Senate Majority Leader Dean Johnson, has a newfound enthusiasm for the institution that he hopes to convey to his acquaintances at the capitol.

"I'm in the process or writing 201 members of the legislature a letter," Johnson said. "I will personally sign the letter, I will put P.S.'s at the bottom of the letter. I will spend time at the capitol visiting with leadership...We want to advocate for the greater good of this university."

Like the U of M, the MnSCU system has a long list--over $100-million--of basic repairs. Dakota County Technical College alone accounts for $5-million dollars of that mostly to replace the aging flat roofs before they leak. MnSCU's bonding request includes $40-million just for replacing and updating such roofs on 22 campuses. MnSCU Associate Vice Chancellor Al Johnson said the average age of the buildings in the system is 36 years.

"Overall, it looks like we're just about holding our own and maybe losing a little bit of ground," he said. "A lot of space (was) built in Minnesota in the 60s and the 70s. And a lot of stuff is coming due at those places."

The governor has proposed $40-million for each of the state-supported systems for basic repairs known as Higher Education Asset Preservation and Replacement or HEAPR.

Outside of both systems' repairs, renovations and new construction, the University of Minnesota is coming back a third time with a longer-term bioscience funding plan. It sets aside $225-million over ten years for projects that support medical research. University President Robert Bruininks said they have a plan to work around the traditional ceiling that prevents the bonding bill from being more than 3 percent of the total budget.

"We are also putting this idea on the table again and we think we have a solution to put it outside the three percent bonding cap and get it funded in a way through our resources and the resources of the state over the next eight to ten years, Bruininks said."

Last year, the legislature included $34-million in maintenance money for MnSCU and the U of M. Governor Pawlenty vetoed the appropriation. This year, Senator Sandy Pappas, DFL-St. Paul, chair of the Higher Education Policy and Finance Division committee, hopes to add around $100-million more to the college maintenance effort than what the governor recommends.

"The governor designated about 24-percent of the $965-million (total bonding budget) they've agreed on," Pappas said. "I'm hoping we can get that up another $100-million or so, so we're closer to a third of the bonding bill. That's what's been more traditional."

Pappas also said there's support for funding the new Bell Museum construction and other projects. Higher education committees continue to hear from officials from each institution and tour proposed project sites. Legislative leaders hope to have a bill by the end of the month.

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