LINCOLN — As lawmakers face a budget shortfall, University of Nebraska leaders are asking the state to double its annual contribution to the university for replacing and renovating aging buildings.

Supporters of the proposal pitched Legislative Bill 858 Tuesday as an investment in students, the state and the region.

“Whether you’re a student, alum, parent, faculty member or a business leader waiting to hire one of our graduates, you understand (that) facilities matter,” said NU President Hank Bounds.

Tuesday, the Nebraska Legislature’s Appropriations Committee heard from Bounds and university officials who described “deferred maintenance” needs for 17 buildings across their four campuses.

Among the projects on the university’s list is a renovation of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s College of Engineering facilities to more efficiently use the space, and a renovation of the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s Arts and Sciences Hall classrooms and public spaces.

Sponsored by Speaker of the Legislature Galen Hadley of Kearney, LB 858 would appropriate $11 million in state funds annually for the next two years and $22 million in state funds annually for the following decade.

In all, the state would appropriate $242 million to the university over the next 12 years.

The university would match the funds using revenue from a 1 percent tuition increase, which would amount to about $2 more per credit hour annually.

Hadley, a former University of Nebraska at Kearney administrator, called the state’s involvement “a matter of good stewardship.”

But some lawmakers asked where else the university might look for additional funds, such as private donors, and expressed concern about how the tuition increase would affect students.

Lawmakers are facing a $140 million budget shortfall this year, the most recent projections show.

Omaha State Sen. Heath Mello, chairman of the Appropriations Committee, called the university’s approach well thought out.

But he said that “everything is in flux” regarding the budget as the Legislature awaits the revenue forecasting board’s meeting this month, when members will review their projections and could increase or decrease them.

Omaha State Sen. Tanya Cook said she was “a little disturbed” that the conversation focused on brick and mortar, instead of on student achievement.

Currently, the state and university both put $11 million annually toward such maintenance projects.

Under Hadley’s proposal, the state and university’s expanded investment would be used to finance a $400 million bond to pay for projects selected through a “data-driven process,” according to the university.

Other projects on the list include demolishing and replacing the Otto Olsen Vocational Arts Building at the University of Nebraska at Kearney; renovating UNL’s College of Business Administration into a general purpose building; and renovating a number of areas, including updating class labs, at Wittson Hall at the University of Nebraska Medical Center.

Bounds said facilities have a direct impact on students because the best professors and researchers, for example, might choose to work at another university’s laboratory over Nebraska’s decades-old ones.

“Certainly a nice building alone will not guarantee excellence,” he said. “But we would be hard-pressed to build an outstanding project, or recruit a top professor or student, or achieve a research breakthrough without classrooms and laboratories suited to 21st century education.”

The committee heard no opponents to the bill and took no action.

Contact the writer: 402-473-9581, emily.nohr@owh.com

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