East Valley lawmakers are leading a bipartisan effort to build nearly $400 million in new research laboratories at Arizona's three universities despite the state's historic fiscal woes.
A new bill will be introduced at the Legislature today to authorize borrowing for construction over the next two years at Arizona State University, University of Arizona and Northern Arizona University.
The new buildings, including six facilities in Tempe and Phoenix, are central to plans by the Arizona State Board of Regents to propel the universities among the nation's top research institutions for areas such as bioscience, medical technology, astronomy and astrophysics.
The plan had been on hold for three months while the universities negotiated privately with key lawmakers. Several of those involved said the talks demonstrate the Legislature is committed to improving higher education even as it struggles with billon-dollar budget shortfalls.
"We must seize this historic opportunity to change the direction of Arizona's economy and elevate higher education to a higher tier," said Rep. Bob Robson, R-Chandler and House speaker pro tempore. "Can you imagine our dismay in 10 years if we look back to see that we had it and didn't do something about it as a legislative body?"
Details of the proposal were still being worked out Monday, but the plan would borrow financing ideas behind the new Arizona Cardinals stadium and the proposed expansion of the Phoenix Civic Plaza, allowing the projects to begin immediately but delaying the contribution of general tax dollars for four years.
Debt interest in the first two years would be paid through rebates from sales taxes charged to project contractors, Robson said. Then, the universities will combine their own funds with $3 million or $4 million from sources to be identified later by the governor's office. Finally, the state would pay $33 million annually starting in fiscal year 2007, with the final repayment reaching about $800 million after 30 years, Robson said.
"This will help build a resource infrastructure that will allow the universities to take advantage of all the biotech activities as well as allowing university faculties to compete in the national market" for federal research grants, said George Cunningham, chief financial adviser to Gov. Janet Napolitano.
Rep. Mark Thompson, R-Tempe, said lawmakers are excited by the efforts of new ASU president Michael Crow to redefine the mission of each university in ways that raise the each one's national stature of each while operating more efficiently.
“This matches Crow’s vision of changing from a state-funded to an enterprise agency,” Thompson said. "Down the road, we can expect the universities to become less dependent on state appropriations."
The universities can expect to receive at least $5 in federal grant money for every $1 spent by the state, Thompson said, while Arizona will see $5 or $6 in economic development from the same investment.
Combined with funds from a sales tax increase approved by state voters in 2000, the plan could bring a total of 7,000 new jobs to the three universities.
ASU officials declined to comment Monday night, saying they will wait until the bill is introduced and there's a formal announcement of any agreement. Crow told the Tribune in early March that the plan would one of the largest scientific projects every undertaken in the country.