East Valley Republicans leaned heavily on their legislative counterparts this week to pay for an expansion of Arizona State University Polytechnic in Mesa.
But what was thought to have been a lock has turned into larger struggle as the lawmakers tried to rally support for the $108 million project.
The East Valley lawmakers are being accused of trying to force the Legislature to pay for a massive pet project that benefits them politically in an election year.
“At this time, everyone is trying to push their pork through,” said Sen. Ron Gould, R-Lake Havasu City. “This only benefits professors and (ASU President) Michael Crow’s empire-building.”
Throughout the entire session, supporters of the campus expansion thought the money would be there. But so far it’s not and some East Valley lawmakers are beginning to believe time is running out.
“This is a make or break week for the Polytechnic campus, and our East Valley leaders need to stand up and be counted,” said Rep. Gary Pierce, R-Mesa.
Pierce, who is the majority whip in the House, echoed what other East Valley business and political leaders have said in the past — that the campus will play a huge role in the economic development of the area.
But with pressure building on lawmakers to adopt a budget as the legislative session drags on, he said it’s important the money is there before lawmakers move on in the budget discussions.
That pressure comes from state and local agencies, such as school districts, which depend on legislators approving a budget before they can map out their own finances for the upcoming year.
ASU officials have asked for the money to construct three new buildings at Polytechnic, which has seen significant growth in recent years, located at Williams Gateway Airport.
The 5,000-student campus offers 33 degree programs, including golf course management, various technology, agribusiness and aviationrelated programs and the university’s center for real estate.
House Speaker Pro Tem Bob Robson, R-Chandler, who has vowed the money would be there for the entire session, rejected the idea that the project was pork-barrel spending.
“This is as important for the state as financing a road or a freeway,” Robson said. As chairman of the House Rules Committee, Robson wields a lot of power over the negotiations and could, if he decides, refuse to hear any bill that doesn’t contain money for the campus.
Beginning last week, legislative leaders started meeting with other members to determine what would be included in the budget. While nearly every Republican lawmaker from the East Valley has pledged to throw their political muscle behind the project, at least one is holding off on his support — Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Gilbert.
“I want to see what else is in the proposal,” he said. Biggs said he looks forward to seeing the entire plan, in particular, how lawmakers intend to finance the project.
To pay for the construction, state lawmakers are considering three options. The first calls for the state to use part of its estimated $801 million surplus this year to pay for the entire project upfront. Another option would be to pay $7.5 million in each of the next 30 years. The third option calls for the state to pay about $35 million in each of the next three years.
Other lawmakers from outside the East Valley also have been reluctant to embrace the plans. Rep. Jennifer Burns, R-Tucson, said she supports paying over the next 30 years, but she didn’t like the other options.
“I think all three universities have needs, and need to be treated fairly,” she said. Traditionally, the state’s two largest universities — ASU and the University of Arizona — have received nearly equal funding. Burns wondered if that tradition would be jeopardized by giving ASU the money all at once or in large portions over the next three years.
Likewise, Greg Fahey, the assistant vice president of government relations at UA, was concerned there would be nothing left if ASU got everything it wanted this year.
“I’m not against ASU getting what they can, but I hope this doesn’t cut into what’s available elsewhere,” he said.
Recent enrollment growth at ASU Polytechnic underscores the need to act quickly on the expansion, university leaders said.
The Polytechnic campus has seen annual enrollment growth of 20 percent to 25 percent since the first classes were held there in the fall of 1996, said Polytechnic provost Gerald Jakubowski. Enrollment has grown to 5,200 students in the spring semester from fewer than 1,000 students a decade ago.
He said the campus needs more room or it will simply have to limit the number of new students who can attend classes there. The university expects the campus to serve 15,000 students by 2020.
“This campus has grown by leaps and bounds,” Jakubowski said. “At the present time, we are completely out of space.”
Jakubowski said he’s confident lawmakers will find a way this year to pay for the expansion. “If it doesn’t come from the state, it won’t come from any other source,” he said.
Even if East Valley Republicans are successful at getting money into the budget, they could soon find another political hurdle — Gov. Janet Napolitano. Napolitano, a Democrat, did not include money to pay for the Mesa campus in her executive budget proposal released in January.
“The Polytechnic campus wasn’t in ASU’s original proposal. It came late in the game,” said Jeanine L’Ecuyer, a spokeswoman for the governor. “It’s not ruled out, but $100 million in cash has to be weighed against other issues.”
For the governor, those issues include funding for programs such as voluntary fullday kindergarten, pay raises for teachers and tax incentives for small businesses that offer health insurance to their employees.
It’s unknown how the Polytechnic campus will play out in the larger budget negotiations that have been ongoing between the governor and the GOP-controlled Legislature. Differences remain between the governor and GOP leadership over how to dedicate funds from a projected budget surplus for next year.
The two sides have sparred over a number of large issues facing the state this year. The governor has already vetoed 28 bills that have come across her desk. Last year, the governor rejected 58 bills — a state record.
Likewise, budget talks between the governor and Republican leadership have moved slowly as the two sides have been unable to find a compromise on their proposed tax cut and illegal immigration packages.
Late Thursday, the governor told Republicans that she would not agree to a budget that didn’t include a comprehensive immigration proposal.
Regarding taxes, the governor has said there’s no way she’ll agree to the Republican proposal which calls for an $800 million permanent tax cut to be phased in over three years. Napolitano has asked for $100 million in targeted tax cuts, which include credits for small businesses that provide health insurance for their workers.