Arizona lawmaker unhappy with university spending - East Valley Tribune: East Valley Local News

Arizona lawmaker unhappy with university spending

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Posted: Tuesday, August 5, 2008 8:54 pm | Updated: 9:50 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

House Speaker Jim Weiers said lawmakers may have been "hoodwinked" by the state's three universities in giving them $1 billion for projects.

Weiers said the university presidents sold the package as being necessary to fund "fire and life safety projects."

ASU funded all of its $143.2 million in fire and life safety priorities with its share.

But Weiers said the University of Arizona and Northern Arizona University are instead using some of that money to construct new buildings - and leaving those priority projects for later.

"The blame for any injury or death that may happen due to the refusal of these universities to address the projects that they have already identified will land squarely on the laps of the members of the Board of Regents and the university presidents," Weiers wrote in a letter Tuesday to Gov. Janet Napolitano.

Gubernatorial press aide Jeanine L'Ecuyer called Weiers' comments "baloney." She said no student, faculty member or staff member is in danger because of the funding priorities.

And she accused Weiers - who did not vote to let the universities borrow money for repairs or any projects - of playing politics.

UA spokesman Paul Allvin echoed the argument that the fire and life safety projects his school is not funding do not endanger anyone's safety.

Allvin also said no one tried to fool Weiers or other lawmakers.

He said the university presidents made it clear all along that the money they were seeking would not all go to what he called deferred maintenance. Allvin said lawmakers were told some of the funds would go to new buildings and some of the cash would "contribute to the local economy."

That, said Allvin, is why the UA is spending $90 million for a new environmental and natural resources building. And he said that is why the university allocated $12 million to renovate Centennial Hall.

"It is very limited now in the acts that it attracts because it's got dead spots, it's got acoustical problems, it's old, it's run-down," he said. "It could be a real gem and a real (economic) engine."

But Weiers noted that leaves only $68 million for what UA identified for lawmakers as critical repairs, versus the $85.8 million in such repairs UA said it needed.

NAU spokeswoman Lisa Nelson acknowledged her school is spending just $80 million of its allocation on fire and life safety projects even though it listed $99.5 million in such needs. But she said the priorities are being addressed.

"Critical fire and life safety needs are being addressed," she said.

L'Ecuyer said no such promise to fund those fire and life safety projects first ever was made.

Weiers disagreed. He said university officials came to lawmakers earlier this year and provided a list of "critical needs" that must be addressed.

"Were we hoodwinked in the beginning, that the list is not as comprehensive as it should be?" he asked.

Napolitano and the universities originally sought permission to borrow $1.4 billion for both renovation and new construction. That did not fly when lawmakers questioned how the state would pay it back.

Ultimately budget negotiators came up with a plan to convince more people to buy more Lottery tickets, with the additional revenues expected to be enough for the state's share of paying off$1 billion in borrowing.

Of the total, $470 million was set aside for more buildings at the Biomedical Campus in Phoenix being run jointly by the UA and Arizona State University. Each of the other three universities got a $170 million allotment, with an additional $20 million for ASU for a new School of Construction.

Weiers said the universities did a sales job comparable to a teen saying he needs $400 for vehicle repairs, some for the brakes and some for a new stereo. The father provides some money for the brakes, but the youngster spends the cash on audio.

The result, said Weiers, is risking an accident because of misplaced priorities.

"These are life and safety (issues)," L'Ecuyer responded.

"They are not life-threatening," she continued. "Those are not interchangeable terms."

And that, said L'Ecuyer, is why everything on the priority list is not being funded immediately. "There have been 'critical repairs' on the lists of all the universities for many, many years now."

L'Ecuyer said the repairs have fallen behind because tight budgets have resulted in cuts to university operating funds.

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