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Could Utah's $242 million state surplus fund new university buildings?

Published September 19, 2013 3:04 pm

Higher ed • New science building at Weber State is at the top of wish list —­ again.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Higher education leaders have a few ideas about how the state could spend its new $242 million budget surplus.

First up is replacing the Weber State University Science Lab Building, where the chemistry floor has no sprinklers, the construction is laden with asbestos and the ceilings are too low for modern labs.

It is one of three science buildings the Utah System of Higher Education put at the top of its 2014 capital project wish list last week. Though the list wasn't made in response to Tuesday's surplus announcement, the extra money could give higher education projects a boost following years of cuts during the recession.

"It is one-time funding, so that certainly doesn't address the cuts that were made to ongoing funding, but certainly if it helps support our budget ... then I think that's a positive thing," said USHE spokeswoman Pam Silberman.

Weber State is requesting $57.4 million in state money to replace the 1954 science structure. Second on the list is Snow College, which wants $18.9 million to replace a building also riddled with asbestos, not to mention a large, expanding crack at one corner of the building that houses anatomy, biology, chemistry and physics labs, according to USHE records.

The University of Utah, meanwhile, is looking to the state for $34 million to renovate and expand the historic George Thomas Building, former home of the Utah Natural History Museum, for new classroom space and a Center for Cell and Genome Science. Both the U. and WSU will also kick in donor funds.

Those are the top three of eight capital projects on a 2014 priority list approved last week, but their fate will rest with the Utah Legislature. The Weber State science building was also in the No. 1 spot on the wish list this year, but the school had to settle for $3.5 million to design it.

Lawmakers did fund another project tied for the top spot: a new $54 million classroom building for Utah Valley University.

USHE will also ask the Legislature for $30.3 million to fund a 3 percent increase in employee compensation next year, including performance-based raises and higher health care costs, as well as $69.7 million to close a per student funding gap between schools that developed as enrollment grew and state support dropped. The Board of Regents also prioritized a $10 million request to help pay for Utah Gov. Gary Herbert's goal of increasing the number of Utahns with degrees and certificates.

The surplus makes the outlook for some of those requests rosier, though half will go to the state's rainy day fund and the remaining $122 million will be shared with elementary and high schools.

Educators at Weber State are hoping this is their year.

"Faculty have been pushing it here on campus for more than two decades," said David Matty, dean of the College of Science. "Right now, we're having a lot of trouble keeping up with modern advances ... frankly I think our students and Utah's students deserve better."

lwhitehurst@sltrib.com

Twitter: @lwhitehurst —

Higher education's 2014 capital project wish list

1 • Weber State University new science lab building

2 • Snow College new Science Building

3 • University of Utah George Thomas Building renovation

4 • Facilities for Utah State University's statewide instructional initiative at Brigham City and USU Eastern

5 • Salt Lake Community College career and technical education building

6 • Dixie State University physical education/health and wellness center

7 • Southern Utah University new business building

8 • Utah Valley University Performing Arts Building