Arizona State University President Michael Crow and other Arizona university presidents are pushing the Legislature to approve a $1.4 billion capital improvement program for the three institutions, which they say will stimulate the state's weakened economy.
The plan has drawn support from construction associations and business groups, including the East Valley Partnership.
But it will be a tough sell in the Legislature, which faces budget deficits of $1.2 billion this year and $1.7 billion next year.
In an interview with the Tribune Editorial Board on Thursday, Crow said the state is producing college graduates at a rate far below the national average and must expand its higher education system to benefit in the long term.
"Our education infrastructure and performance is important to Arizona's future," he said, citing a study that said each 1 percent increase in the population holding college degrees adds $2.1 billion to the state's economy.
The plan would also keep the state's construction industry going at a time when it's in danger of being disassembled, he said.
The university presidents have structured the plan so the state would not pay any money until 2010, when presumably the economy would be turning around and the state could better afford to make payments on the 25-year bonds. If implemented quickly, however, it would give the economy an immediate jolt, Crow said.
The idea is that the universities would foot interest-only payments until 2010. After that, the state would assume 80 percent of the interest and principal on the bonds, and the universities would pay 20 percent.
A big chunk of the $1.4 billion - $470 million - would go to the University of Arizona medical campus in downtown Phoenix, which includes a research building shared with ASU. ASU's other campuses would get $329 million, UA $327 million and Northern Arizona University $311 million.
Crow wants a big share of ASU's portion to cover long-deferred maintenance of buildings at the Tempe campus, which would also get two new buildings - a general-purpose building to house classrooms while buildings are renovated and a new building for the Del Webb School of Construction Management, which Crow wants to make "the best in the world."
The ASU Polytechnic campus in east Mesa would get renovation work but no new buildings.
Crow said the university would cover its share partly from future tuition increases already programmed into ASU's budget.He promised that no new tuition increases would be needed beyond what has already been approved.
Mark Minter, executive director of the Arizona Builders' Alliance, said the time is ripe for a capital improvement program because the construction slowdown will make labor and materials readily available and reduce costs.
But some lawmakers are skeptical.
"I give (Crow) an A for ingenuity and creativity, but it is outrageous when we are running a $1.2 billion and $1.7 billion deficit," said Rep. Russell Pearce, R-Mesa, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.