Higher ed takes heat from lawmakers

By By Jake Parkinson

By Jake Parkinson

After addressing the committee, veteran lawmaker Sen. Al Mansell, R-Sandy, taunted his colleagues while he walked out of the room, “Think you can do it as fast as that?”

The Legislative Executive Appropriation Committee took just minutes to approve the wish-list budget of the legislative subcommittee he co-chairs.

If Mansell had stayed, he would have been surprised to see the meeting move swiftly, which it did until Sen. Greg Bell, R-Fruit Heights, sat before the committee.

Bell, co-chairperson of the Higher Education Appropriations Committee, was put on trial by a handful of fellow GOP lawmakers who didn’t think it was fair that colleges and universities ask for money to construct new buildings and then turn around and ask for money to keep them running.

When House Speaker Greg Curtis suggested the Board of Regents might be double-dipping into the state pot by possibly going to the capital facilities committee to ask for additional money, Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, who currently co-chairs executive appropriations and formerly co-chaired higher education committee, rolled his eyes in disgust.

But the gesture didn’t stop the grilling. In fact, two other Republican lawmakers joined in.

Bell tried to explain that schools aren’t double-dipping, and he tried to point out that higher education makes up 68 percent of the square footage of all state-owned structures, but the committee wouldn’t budge.

At one point Curtis even threatened to dig up the Regents’ old budget list to see if they upped their budget when they saw the state had more.

Higher Education Commissioner Richard Kendell called the lawmakers’ refrains “strange, mixed signals.”

Operation and maintenance of buildings “is a legitimate expenditure,” Kendell said. He pointed out that lawmakers didn’t hesitate to spend millions to build the new Capital Complex, which also has operation expenses that have to be met.

The debate was raised when the list of priorities included a compensation increase of $3 million and increased operation and maintenance funding $4.8 million. In all, the Utah System of Higher Education requested almost $700 million for next year. Other budget items in the wish list include increased funding for the nursing and engineering initiatives, fuel and power costs and financial aid.

“I don’t know how much additional money we will see,” Kendell said. “It looks like every extra dollar is going to roads. I would think education would be a bigger priority.”

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