U of Hawaii repairs short on funding
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By Derrick DePledge
Advertiser Government Writer
By Derrick DePledge
State House and Senate leaders differ about whether they fulfilled their promise to invest in the University of Hawai'i after they provided less new construction money than university administrators — and many lawmakers — had wanted this session.
The university will receive $157.9 million next fiscal year for repair and maintenance and new construction, which is less than half of what UH administrators had requested but substantially more than Gov. Linda Lingle had proposed in her budget.
Construction money for UH was a significant divide in House and Senate conference committee negotiations on the state budget, with the Senate pushing for more spending and the House holding back because of caution about the state's economy. In the end, lawmakers agreed to spend slightly more on UH than in earlier House and Senate drafts.
The divide over the budget, which largely played out in private and later influenced spending decisions on dozens of other bills, came after House leaders insisted that assumptions on state revenue growth be lower than the latest 3.9 percent forecast by the state Council on Revenues.
Although the revenue picture has more impact on general-fund spending than on bond-financed capital improvement projects, House negotiators wanted to be conservative about increasing the state's debt in case the economy goes from slow to stagnant.
"We had to live within our means," said state Rep. Marcus Oshiro, D-39th (Wahiawa), the chairman of the House Finance Committee. "I think we took, probably, a more conservative approach, a more realistic approach, given what we see occurring in the economy.
"We didn't want to overspend and mortgage the future, but provide the resources to maintain our facilities. I think we were very honest and prudent."
Some of the Senate's negotiators were frustrated by the House's strategy and argued that lawmakers would hear from the public if they failed to make investments at UH after their statements earlier in the session.
State Sen. Shan Tsutsui, D-4th (Kahului), vice chair of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, said greater investments in bond-financed construction could have helped reduce the backlog of UH repair and maintenance projects and given a boost to the construction sector of the economy.
Tsutsui said the Senate wanted to add another $40 million on UH projects in conference. "Obviously, I still would rather have done more for the university," he said. "I thought that would have been the reasonable thing to do, the responsible thing to do, but, unfortunately, we couldn't get agreement from the House."
State Senate Majority Leader Gary Hooser, D-7th (Kaua'i, Ni'ihau), also said the Legislature should have done more for UH. "I'm disappointed that we were not more aggressive in funding university repair and maintenance and capital improvements," he said.
The reason UH construction money became such an issue this session had more to do with timing and public pressure than lawmakers' original priorities.
The success of the Warriors football program brought public attention to the Manoa campus last year, and new Manoa chancellor Virginia Hinshaw mentioned the deterioration of campus buildings prominently in her inaugural address in November.
But UH construction spending is actually higher in this fiscal year — the first year of the two-year budget cycle — than what was ever seriously under consideration for next fiscal year, and that money was locked into the budget before quarterback Colt Brennan made his comments last spring about the lack of soap in the showers of the athletic facilities.
New UH construction money was quickly added as a session priority by House and Senate leadership in the days after June Jones left as football coach and Herman Frazier resigned as athletic director in January.
Several lawmakers toured the Manoa campus, with the news media in tow, and viewed the disrepair of the athletic facilities and other campus buildings.
But, in a fact lost on many at the time, university administrators and the governor had not made improvements to Manoa athletic facilities priorities in their budget requests.
University administrators also provided inconsistent estimates of the repair and maintenance backlog. The estimates at Manoa alone at first ranged from $120 million to $300 million before Hinshaw told lawmakers that her best estimate was $400 million.
A new systemwide model late last month put the repair and maintenance backlog for all 10 campuses at $351.5 million.
In the past, similar inconsistencies from the state Department of Education on the repair backlog at K-12 public schools led lawmakers to create separate lists to keep track — one for deferred maintenance prior to June 2001; another for projects afterward.
State Sen. Norman Sakamoto, D-15th (Waimalu, Airport, Salt Lake), chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said one benefit of all the attention to UH is now the university and lawmakers have an accurate estimate about the backlog and what is necessary each year to keep it from growing. UH administrators believe they need about $60 million annually to keep pace with repair and maintenance, so lawmakers agreed during conference to pump up a lump sum pool of money for repairs from $48.5 million to $58.5 million.
"I think having that number as a target is a good thing," Sakamoto said, adding that he hopes private investors might also step up and help the university, especially with athletic facilities.
Brian Minaai, the UH associate vice president for capital improvements, said the university is grateful for the new construction money and appreciates that lawmakers have to balance competing demands.
"Given the financial considerations that the Legislature had to address, we are very pleased about what we have, but we wished we could have gotten the full funding that we had requested," he said.
Oshiro said many lawmakers are still adjusting to the state's slowing economy, and what that might mean for state spending, after a few years when they had the luxury of a record budget surplus.
The conservative track imposed by House leadership has upset some within their own caucus, who had some of their spending requests turned down this session, and even prompted state Rep. Joseph Souki, D-8th (Wailuku, Waihe'e, Waiehu), to complain that majority Democrats were acting more like Republicans.
Oshiro has had to defend some of his decisions to his colleagues over the past several days, including why some spending important to his district made it into the budget.
"I think we took the right approach," he said.
State House Majority Leader Kirk Caldwell, D-24th (Manoa), said lawmakers agreed to substantially more UH construction money than the governor requested.
"I think it shows a strong commitment by the majority to start to deal with the backlog of R&M and, hopefully, we can continue to honor that commitment going forward," Caldwell said. "Of course, we have to see what the economy looks like next year. It may take longer to get caught up, or maybe this is just a blip and things will get better, in which case we can start to put even more into the UH system."
Both Caldwell and Hooser in the Senate said the new construction money for UH and at K-12 public schools, along with separate initiatives related to alternative energy, the environment and affordable housing, represent a solid effort in a supplemental budget year when lawmakers heard mostly bad news about the economy during the session.
"We're really good at setting goals, but this year we're actually doing things, taking action to achieve those goals," Caldwell said.
The UH construction money is in the state budget, HB2500 HD1 CD1.
Reach Derrick DePledge at firstname.lastname@example.org.