In seeking more than twice as much for building projects than they had asked for in 2017, the UW Regents are coming in for criticism from a top lawmaker for letting a $256 million science building for UW-Eau Claire leapfrog other long-standing priorities.
The UW System’s nearly $2 billion request, which would rely on $1.7 billion worth of bonding, is well more than twice as big as the $713.3 million the system had sought two years ago for the state’s current budget. And even though the amount of spending sought two years ago was substantially less than now, it still didn’t make it into an official plan without first being cut. By the time the Legislature had passed the UW’s capital budget and Gov. Scott Walker had put his signature on it, it had been whittled down to $483.3 million.
As for the UW System’s latest request, it has yet to be taken up by the full Legislature but has already managed to irk a prominent lawmaker. The University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire is seeking permission for the construction of a new Phillips Science Hall. UW-Eau Claire officials say the project has long been a priority of the university’s and could include a yet-to-be completed deal with Mayo Clinic, which university officials are hoping will help cover part of the project’s cost.
But State Assembly Minority Leader Gordon Hintz, D-Oshkosh, criticized the science hall’s inclusion in the regents’ budget request, saying the project was being moving ahead quickly merely because it happens to be close to the home of Regents President John Robert Behling, who lives in Eau Claire. Four other members of the 17-member board of regents are also from the Eau Claire area.
“I was surprised when I saw long-term building projects across the system being pushed down the list in favor of a new, costly project in the backyard of the Board of Regents president,” Hintz said. “The optics are not good.”
Mike Rindo, UW-Eau Claire assistant chancellor for facilities and university relations, said the university has had the Phillips Hall project in its development plans since 2013. Hintz, meanwhile, said the project came as a surprise and “had not appeared in any previous capital budget request.”
Rindo said that although the project has not yet come before the regents, UW-Eau Claire’s request shouldn’t be a surprise.
“To say it came out of nowhere is not the case,” he said, adding that the project has been part of the university’s master plan and its physical-development plan.
Hintz also noted that UW-Eau Claire’s request for a science hall won the Regent’s approval while a project in Hintz’s own district, the second phase of an addition to UW-Oshkosh’s nursing and education building — requested since 2011 — did not. Hintz said the longer it takes to complete building projects, the more expensive they become.
“As deteriorating buildings are moved from prioritized positions in the capital budget, renovations can quickly escalate into full scale building replacements,” he said. “Budgeting for political purposes has significant negative impacts on the infrastructure that supports our students, educators, and communities.”
At UW-Eau Claire, Phillips Hall project would replace an old building that still has single-pane windows, ceilings incapable of supporting an HVAC system and other faulty infrastructure that impedes UW-Eau Claire’s ability to use modern equipment, Rindo said. That building was put up in two phases, beginning in 1963.
For the replacement project, Rindo said campus officials are hoping to secure between $10 million and $13 million from Mayo and other private sources. But it’s unlikely any private financing will come together before Walker and the Legislature take up the state budget next year.
The UW Board of Regents voted 16-1 on Thursday to send their capital request to Gov. Scott Walker for consideration in his 2019-2021 state budget. Bryan Steil, a republican running for departing House Speaker Paul Ryan’s seat, was the only regent to vote against the UW budget, calling the request too large.
The regents’ remarkably large request comes as part of an attempt to reduce the number of proposed campus building projects that are awaiting approval. The governor, faced with concerns from his fellow Republicans over the state’s debt levels, has become reluctant in recent years to borrow heavily for UW projects.
Heather LaRoi, a UW System spokeswoman Heather, said the UW system has placed a priority on requesting projects that promise to help prepare students for careers in science, technology, engineering and math.
“The UW System has consistently stated its strong support for facilities that meet STEM and other compelling state needs, and that is reflected in our capital budget request,” LaRoi said.Follow @natebeck9