Sen. McLachlan Opposes Borrowing Billions for UConn Without a Detailed Plan

April 17, 2013

Article as it appeared in the Hartford Courant
$2 Billion, 10-Year UConn Plan Clears Tax Committee $200 Million Bioscience Initiative Also Backed

By CHRISTOPHER KEATING, [email protected]

The Hartford Courant

The legislature’s finance committee voted overwhelmingly Tuesday in favor of a plan to pour $2 billion into the University of Connecticut over the next decade, taking another step toward expansion and improvement beyond the $2.3 billion that has already been allocated under previous governors.

The proposal, by Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy received bipartisan approval, 43-7, with the negative votes coming from legislators who said the plan was too expensive.

Sen. John Fonfara, the new co-chairman of the tax-writing committee, told his colleagues that they had the chance to cast an unusual vote Tuesday that would have significant long-term consequences.

“You vote on hundreds and thousands of bills in your time as a legislator,” Fonfara said, adding that it is relatively rare to take a vote on an issue that will have “measurable effects” on the state.

“We have fallen behind as a state,” Fonfara said. “But the world is changing and so is our economy.”

Malloy’s proposal — known as Next Generation Connecticut — would increase undergraduate enrollment by 30 percent and sharply increase the number of science, technology, engineering and mathematics students at the state’s flagship university. It calls for awarding 1,400 scholarships to high-achieving students, hiring 259 new faculty members, and adding 50 doctoral fellowships. An additional 5,000 students would be enrolled at the main campus in Storrs, along with 1,500 more at the Stamford campus that was formerly north of the Merritt Parkway but is now near the city’s downtown.

The plan also calls for moving the 58-acre West Hartford regional campus to downtown Hartford.

Currently, UConn receives about 6,000 applications from engineering students, but only 500 students can be seated, Fonfara said. The new plan will increase those numbers.

Separately Tuesday, the committee voted 39-11 for Malloy’s bioscience initiative, which would spend $200 million over 10 years to help spur the development of the industry in the state.

But on the UConn proposal, some Republicans said the state would be borrowing too much money when it has consistently ranked near the top for the highest bonded debt per capita in the nation. Sen. L. Scott Frantz, a Greenwich Republican, said that “my fiscal conscience that doesn’t let me sleep very well at night” caused him to vote against the UConn plan as the state’s finances have gotten “scarier” in recent years.

“There is no more noble cause than education — other than maybe health care,” Frantz told his colleagues. “I don’t mean to turn the cold shower on the idea, because it’s a wonderful idea, but the price-tag is too high for this particular voter.”

Rep. John Piscopo, a veteran Litchfield County Republican who voted in favor of the UConn 21st Century bonding program under then-Gov. John G. Rowland, said he was concerned with the Next Generation program because UConn 21st Century still has four more years remaining before it expires.

“This isn’t 1994 UConn when the library was falling apart, and the The Jungle was the jungle,” Piscopo said. “It’s just too much borrowing, especially right now.” The Jungle was the nickname for a UConn dormitory area.

Several legislators said that spending the money was needed to improve the university.

Recently, the nationally known Consumer Reports magazine rated UConn’s John Dempsey Hospital as last among all 258 teaching hospitals in the United States. UConn officials said the data was accurate at the time it was reported but is now outdated, as the hospital has made recent improvements. Dr. John Santa, the director of the rating center at Consumer Reports, says that the report was completed with the most recently available public data.

In the May 2013 issue of the nationally known magazine, Dempsey was rated last among teaching hospitals, with a score of 17 of a possible 100. The average score was 49, and the hospital with the highest score — at 69 — was the Mayo Clinic Hospital in Phoenix, Ariz.

Sen. Gary LeBeau, an East Windsor Democrat, said the state needs more jobs with “brainpower” with salaries of more than $100,000 per year. Currently, the state ranks 47th in the country in the number of graduates in science and engineering.

“That is a real problem,” LeBeau said of the lack of graduates. “The future is about science, technology, engineering and math — STEM. … There is no other future for Connecticut but this future. There’s really only one choice for our state.”

Rep. Pamela Sawyer, a Bolton Republican, said UConn was “in the pits” before the UConn 2000 proposal under then-Speaker Thomas D. Ritter and Rowland. When anyone drove around the campus in the early 1990s, they saw the Homer Babbidge library in disrepair in mid-campus, she said.

“You saw a library that was under plastic. It was wrapped for 16 years,” Sawyer said of the years before the UConn 2000 program. “One of the first things they did was unwrap the library and rebuild it.”

Concerning the Next Generation plan, Sawyer said, “I am loving this project. … The concern is how it fits with the state’s overall bonding package.”

But Rep. Larry Butler, a Waterbury Democrat, said he wasn’t quite as concerned about the price tag as the Republicans. Butler said the state needs to invest in UConn.

“I can’t think of a better way than to make an investment in our flagship university,” Butler said, adding that his daughter was a biology major in the honors program who graduated two years ago from UConn. “If you were to see what these students are doing … you would have thought you were at MIT. … It was simply brilliant, brilliant, brilliant.”

But Sen. Michael McLachlan, a Danbury Republican, said he could not support the idea until seeing a written, vetted, long-term strategic master plan in the same way that a banking customer would not receive a large loan without a highly detailed business plan.

The overall program will cost $2 billion, including $1.677 billion from the state and $384 million from UConn, including some money that has already been set aside through the UConn 21st Century program. The new program also calls for moving $15 million from deferred maintenance to be redirected to the Avery Point campus.