ACROSS MISSISSIPPI — Mississippi’s public universities say they need $684 million in building renovations and new construction. Officials know lawmakers won’t provide that much money next year. So instead, they’d like predictability when it comes to state bond funding.
The College Board voted to forward the top 10 construction priorities of each institution to the Legislature.
Lawmakers did not approve any bond funding in 2012. House members couldn’t agree with Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and the Senate over how much the state should borrow.
Reeves has made reducing state debt a priority, and touts the refusal to borrow as a success.
“It was time to draw the line and take a break from borrowing,” the Republican said Aug. 1 at the Neshoba County Fair.
Bond money traditionally pays to build and renovate classroom and administrative buildings. But officials say some institutions are dipping into other pots of money to complete urgent projects.
“If we go another year without a significant bond issue, we’re in trouble,” Higher Education Commissioner Hank Bounds said after a last Wednesday committee meeting to review the requests.
Bounds and College Board officials are pushing the idea that lawmakers should map out how much they plan to borrow every four years. Universities and other entities could plan better, they say, instead of facing the uncertainty of bonding amounts that bounce up and down from year to year.
Harry Sims, the College Board’s assistant commissioner of real estate and facilities, said that the state’s smaller universities struggle to pull together enough money for major projects. For example, he said Delta State University had to hoard several years of bond allocations before it could start renovating its only science building, Caylor-White-Walters Hall.
Other institutions also have big-ticket items on their to-do list. The Mississippi University for Women says it needs to renovate and add to Fant Memorial Library, largely untouched since built in 1969. The price? An estimated $16.4 million.
University Medical Center says its top priority is a new medical school building, helping it to expand the number of physicians it trains and improve some teaching spaces that are little more than closets. Gov. Phil Bryant touts increasing the number of doctors in the state, but the price for a new building is a whopping $62.6 million. That’s the most expensive project on any institution’s list.
“We’re fully aware that we’re not going to be fully funded,” Sims said. But he said that if lawmakers would make a four-year plan, schools could start their top two or three projects, confident they could finish within four years
Bounds said multiyear commitments could aid outside fundraising. “It would give the universities the ability to go and raise new money to match the dollars they received,” he said.
Others, including the Mississippi Association of Supervisors and officials in the Department of Finance and Administration, express interest in multiyear bond bills.
Derrick Surrette, executive director of the county supervisors group, said his association has discussed two-year bills to help counties better budget bridge money.
A county that’s building a large bridge may need to spend one year to buy right of way and move utilities, Surrette said, and then spend the next year on construction.
“It’s hard to do that in a 12-month period,” Surrette said.
Rick Snowden, who directs DFA’s Bureau of Buildings, said a multiyear bill was discussed with lawmakers last year, as was the idea of appropriating non-bond money for maintenance, repairs and renovations.
The universities alone have between $600 million and $1 billion in needed maintenance projects, Sims said. The College Board, for example, is pushing all schools to install fire sprinklers in dormitories.
“We’d like to see structural, planned progress to take care of the deferred maintenance,” Sims said.
Laura Hipp, Reeves’ spokeswoman, said he would examine the universities’ requests. But his comments to the Neshoba audience indicate he wants to keep a tight rein.
“There are some good projects, many of which I supported, and some projects we really need,” Reeves said. “And I hope we get some of those funded next session. But I can promise you this — just like the Senate did this year — we are going to offer a conservative borrowing plan for only the most essential needs.”
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