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UW System, state strike construction deal before Building Commission meeting

By James Briggs

A last-minute deal between the University of Wisconsin System and Gov. Scott Walker has guaranteed the construction of major building projects that had been left out of the original 2011-13 capital budget.

The state Building Commission on Wednesday approved Walker’s $1.1 billion capital budget and gave the UW System the go-ahead for two previously excluded projects: construction of a $52.2 million nursing center in Madison and a $63.5 million renovation and expansion of the health and human performance building in River Falls.

The UW System expects the nursing building project to create 500 construction jobs during the next two years, said Alan Fish, vice chancellor of facilities for UW-Madison.

Neither project increased the capital budget. Instead, the deals included compromises from the UW System and the state.

UW-Madison agreed to reallocate money from its maintenance budget to pay for the nursing building, and Walker and the Building Commission granted advanced enumeration for the health building to be constructed during the 2013-15 biennial budget.

“That allowed the administration to keep their overall (budget) number and allowed us to move forward with the (nursing building) project, and they were willing to advance enumerate,” Fish said. “That makes it all work.”

Walker said he understood UW System’s urgency to expand its nursing program with a new building, adding, “We’ve talked about the nursing shortage.”

“In talking with university officials at Madison,” Walker said, “they figure it’s a higher priority for the School of Nursing to move forward with this.”

As for the health building, Walker said, UW System officials made it clear the building was not only insufficient but also unsafe in some areas. The state is loathe to offer advanced enumeration to projects because it limits budget decisions for future Legislatures, but Walker said UW System officials made an “impassioned appeal” for the River Falls project.

“As I understand it, this is not just a building,” Walker said. “More than half the student body population on campus uses this facility.”

The UW System anticipates raising $2 million for the River Falls project, but officials said it would be nearly impossible to raise any money unless they could guarantee potential donors the project would be built in the near future.

“It’s imperative we as a state send a message to the community we’re going to do this,” said Building Commission Chairman Rep. Dean Kaufert, R-Neenah. “We hate to tie the hands of this next Legislature by advanced enumerating, but as long as (Walker is) OK with that, I think it’s a good move to send a signal.”

When Walker told the UW System neither project would be included in the next biennial budget, officials started scrambling to propose an alternative, Fish said.

“There were so many (options) they’re probably not worth counting,” he said, “but this was the one we thought had the best chance for success.”

Upon adjournment of Wednesday’s meeting, Fish received a celebratory cigar from David Miller, an associate vice president for UW System.

Walker said the capital budget accomplishes major goals for most state agencies, including the UW System, despite representing a 30 percent cut from the 2009-11 budget.

“The focus was not on big, new and bold, minus a few exceptions, but on taking care of the things we have,” Walker said. “The things that are new, like the School of Nursing, they’re significant investments and include money from the private sector helping us balance that off by not putting it all on the backs of taxpayers.”

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