State lawmakers were furious Tuesday when Arizona State University Foundation members didn’t show up to explain plans to build a $300 million research center in Scottsdale.
Rep. Russell Pearce, R-Mesa, suggested that the project should be stopped in its tracks until the foundation offers a financial accounting.
Pearce is chairman of the House-Senate Joint Committee on Capital Review. The committee, which reviews major construction projects to make sure they meet the Legislature’s expectations, was scheduled to get a briefing on the project Tuesday.
When no one from the foundation showed up, lawmakers directed their questions to Steve Smith, an ASU lobbyist, and Steve Olson, a lobbyist for Scottsdale. Neither Smith nor Olson could answer even basic questions about the project.
"I’m really not clear on the details," Olson said, adding that he came to learn more.
Smith said the three foundation members who could answer questions didn’t attend because of an oversight on his part. The committee postponed the issue indefinitely.
In this case, the committee doesn’t have the authority to delay the project. The foundation doesn’t need the Legislature’s approval to move forward. However, only rarely do people ignore the committee’s request for an explanation of a project. Pearce and others on the committee are influential lawmakers.
If the project needs money from the Legislature in the future, neither the foundation nor the university engendered any good will Tuesday.
Pearce said he wondered if foundation members missed the meeting on purpose.
Steve Evans, chairman of the foundation’s real estate committee, did not return calls Tuesday. Neither did Lonnie Ostrom, president of the ASU Foundation.
Sen. Robert Burns, RPeoria, called the land deal between the foundation and Scottsdale "a little strange." Last month, the foundation bought the 42-acre former Los Arcos Mall site in south Scottsdale from developer Steve Ellman for the proposed research center. The foundation immediately sold the land to the city, which has agreed to pitch in more than $86 million for the project.
Burns suggested that the land transaction was done to bypass Scottsdale voters.
Scottsdale Mayor Mary Manross couldn’t be reached late Tuesday. An aide explained that she was getting ready for a City Council meeting.
Burns also was concerned because the foundation isn’t accountable to the Legislature.
The ASU Foundation is a private, nonprofit firm separate from Arizona State University. The foundation, which raises money for the university, does not fall under the oversight of the Legislature. The university is governed by the Arizona Board of Regents. However, the Legislature pays for a significant portion of the university’s budget through the state’s General Fund.
Pearce said it’s only natural for the Legislature to want answers to tough questions before the project moves forward. ASU wants to take over at least 20 percent of the project from the foundation when construction ends, something Pearce said is a concern to the Legislature.
Andy Biggs, R-Gilbert, said he was disappointed ASU officials hadn’t been briefed better, especially since ASU President Michael Crow was a major proponent of the project.
Richard Stavneak, director of the Joint Legislative Budget Committee, said he found it hard to believe only three people in the entire Valley can answer questions about the project. "I did not expect ASU to be so ignorant," Stavneak said.