Plans to create a veterinary school at the University of Arizona have hit a roadblock as state lawmakers approved just enough money to tease the idea but not enough to actually make it happen.
The budget plan enacted late Thursday by the House of Representatives adds $2.5 million to the university's base budget. Rep. Ethan Orr, R-Tucson, said while those dollars are not earmarked, the intent is to finance the new program.
But Shane Burgess, dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, said the school needs $4.2 million to hire the necessary clinical faculty and renovate facilities in existing buildings already being used by the school's undergraduate program in veterinary science, all precursors to getting the necessary accreditation.
Even Orr said that if lawmakers fail to make up the difference, it might make no sense to even bother trying to proceed.
“If we are going to do a vet school, we need to make sure we do it right in terms of accreditation and in terms of serving the agricultural community,” he said. “I don't think it's appropriate to ask any of our institutions to undertake a mission when they're not giving them the full support to do it.”
Orr said at that point UA President Ann Weaver Hart might do just as well to divert the dollars into hiring researchers, something she had hoped to do with $15 million sought from the Legislature but ended up getting zero.
UA spokeswoman Andrea Smiley called it “premature” to discuss that option.
Orr may not have much leverage to make up the $1.7 million difference to get the school started. He was one of six Republicans who had held out their votes for a new spending plan until House GOP leaders added funding.
But Orr did not vote for the package even after an extra $54 million was added, saying it still was unacceptable because it did not remove a cap that now exists on the number of families that are eligible for state-subsidized child care. Yet the budget passed without his vote anyway.
Central to the debate is that Arizonans who want to become veterinarians have limited choices: a private program at Midwestern University or going out of state, with the Colorado State University being the closest program, particularly for large animals where Burgess said the state has a critical need. Either alternative, he said, is expensive.
Midwestern has not posted prices for its new program set to start this fall. But Burgess said the average cost for private schools nationwide is $55,000 a year. And that's for four years.
He said Arizonans are charged out-of-state tuition at Colorado.
Burgess said that is somewhat lower than going to a private school, but he said it still remains expensive for Arizona residents, and Arizona does provide some aid for its students going there, it still is more expensive than what the UA could charge.
By contrast, he said the UA, because it is starting from scratch, is preparing various options that could expedite the whole process. In fact, one of those actually would take well-qualified high school graduates and actually get them a veterinary degree in four years at a total price tag of only less than $97,000 – and actually $88,000 given the typical financial aid award.
Even if a student could afford to go to Colorado, Burgess said other hurdles remain.
He said the school is limited in the number of out-of-state students it can accept. For the coming year, he said, that means just nine Arizonans would qualify.
Orr said the issue goes beyond money, noting the UA is a “land grant” institution.
“Their core mission is to support the agriculture community, the ranching community,” he said. And he said there also is an obligation to turn out veterinarians who can do the necessary inspections of cattle coming into and out of Arizona for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Burgess acknowledged that there may not be any shortage of veterinarians, at least for pets and other small animals. But he also said there's not a surplus.
More to the point, he said there is a big need for practitioners who are willing to work in rural areas and public health. And Burgess said there's a particular need by firms that do biomedical research who must have veterinarians to look after the animals.
Burgess said the issue of money goes beyond the fact that the program would provide a more affordable option for Arizona residents.
He said the school, which could graduate 35 veterinarians a year, also could accept students from other states. And Burgess said they will pay full freight, essentially subsidizing the education for Arizonans.