In January, a $1.7 billion deficit was ready to swallow Arizona. By mid March, it grew to $1.9 billion. Yet the Republican-dominated Legislature approved HB2211, known as the Higher Education Budget Reconciliation Bill, to spend $1 billion in construction and other capitol projects at Arizona’s three main universities.
Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano signed the bill on June 27. Hey dude, what about the shortfall?
Arizona, like other states, is saddled with increasing costs for medical care, prisons and infrastructure. Every month, revenue lags and job losses pile up. A recipe for disaster looms, yet by law we must spend that $1 billion at Arizona State University, the University of Arizona and Northern Arizona University. Not a crumb was scattered to the state’s community colleges, where thousands of students study for valuable degrees.
Fiscal prudence certainly wasn’t a priority when hashing out this bill, sponsored by retiring Rep. Jennifer Burns, R-Tucson. The Legislature knew Arizona faced a crushing deficit, yet it agreed to squeeze $530 million into one project, namely the Phoenix Biomedical Campus. A downtown medical school won’t solve the growing physician shortage in rural Arizona. There’s a medical school in Tucson and residents in rural southern Arizona lack access to qualified physicians.
The governor wants to mold Phoenix as a biomedical mecca to attract research jobs. That’s laudable, but the competition is fierce. Take the Boston area, a region with links to more prestigious universities such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University. No matter how ASU President Michael Crow tries, the school will never be on the same playing field with the Ivy League. According to the recent Kiplinger report, ASU failed to crack the list of top 100 American universities.
Phoenix lags behind the high-tech ventures in Silicon Valley and may never catch up to its reputation for innovation and excellence.
Arizona’s ample abundance of sun has enormous potential to create jobs to meet the growing demand for solar power, but legislative leaders shun the industry. It’s pathetic that companies looking to invest in solar are forced to open in other states.
Instead, our Legislature caves in to costly demands for capitol improvements at just three colleges. ASU, for instance, has below-average graduation rates, according to the Education Trust Fund in Washington, D.C. Yet the state of Arizona handed over an astonishing $170 million for building construction at a time there is a frightening deficit of anywhere from $1.9 billion to $3 billion. OK, some money is for building repair and upgrades, but why so many new buildings when there’s a fiscal crisis? A portion of the building funds are private or federal, but who benefits from all the construction? Students or contractors?
In October, Rep. Russell Pearce and Sen. Bob Burns, who headed the Joint Committee on Capital Review, blocked the university spending plan. The governor slammed the move, saying it threatened tens of thousands of construction jobs. But temporary construction jobs at three universities are not the boost that Arizona’s economy needs. If the governor is so focused on education, she might steer money to students rather than new buildings. Students are understandably worried, since job prospects are so grim. We owe it to our youth to prepare them for the future, since the Board of Regents just hiked tuition by an unprecedented 15 percent. They should get what they pay for.
Wait, there’s further alarm about HB2211. A whopping 80 percent is pegged to lottery sales. So if all you gamblers tighten up on tickets, be prepared to pick up the tab for university construction. Someone has to pay for all those fancy new buildings. Why shouldn’t it be you?
Passage of HB2211 demonstrates that high school kids lack lobbying muscle. Look at Corona Del Sol High School in Tempe. Mold infected the air, carpets and other parts of the building. Students and staff complained of illness for years. The School Facilities Board, a state agency charged with repairing faulty buildings, shrugged off concerns.
Students and parents raised money for repairs but the $12 million needed for a thorough job went beyond their means. HB2211 includes a loan for $12 million to repair the school so students and staff can work and study in a toxin-free environment. The universities, however, don’t have to pay back their portion of the $1 billion.
HB2211 is a blunder. For the sake of Arizona, I hope the newly elected Legislature shows more concern about spending taxpayers’ money. HB2211 is a boon for construction while universities are slicing faculty and staff.
Debra J. White is a resident of Tempe.