UM President Wolfe testifies in support of state bond legislation

Tuesday, February 5, 2013 | 9:21 p.m. CST; updated 11:55 p.m. CST, Tuesday, February 5, 2013

JEFFERSON CITY — UM System President Tim Wolfe testified at a statehouse hearing Tuesday in support of a $950 million bond issue that could pay for projects at state institutions of higher education, at state parks and at other state facilities.

Wolfe was among a host of university officials who testified at the hearing, held by the House committee for Appropriations-Infrastructure and Job Creation. If passed in its current form, the bond issue also would provide money for state buildings, for state parks and for highways. Exactly what will be included in the final version remains to be seen.

The resolution, HJR14, is sponsored by House Speaker Tim Jones, R-Eureka. It calls for a constitutional amendment authorizing the bonds. That amendment would be subject to a vote of the people. 

Jones has said that now is the time to issue bonds, given Missouri's AAA credit rating, historically low interest rates and the state's critical infrastructure needs.

Rep. Chris Kelly, D-Columbia, is one of many co-sponsors of the bill and chairs the Appropriations-Infrastructure and Job Creation Committee. Reps. Stephen Webber and John Wright, both Columbia Democrats; Rep. Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia; and Rep. Caleb Jones, R-California, also are co-sponsors.

Wolfe said on Tuesday that UM would be able to put the money to good use and create jobs at the same time. He cited many needs across the UM system, including an expansion of facilities at the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Medicine and renovation of the MU College of Engineering's Lafferre Hall.

Lafferre Hall was built in 1892 and has seen no major renovations since 1950, Wolfe said.

Overall, the backlog of necessary capital projects on the UM system's four campuses totals $1.3 billion, Wolfe testified.

"Some students that are graduating from high school, and they take the tours of our campuses, see space that is not as current as what they've experienced at a high school," Wolfe said.

Wolfe also said he would like to double the number of students graduating in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

"It's hard to prepare this work force when the buildings that they're taking classes in are crumbling around them," he said.

Wolfe estimated renovations made possible by the bond issue could create more than 3,000 jobs.

Numerous other university officials attended the hearing, including Truman State University President Troy Paino, Northwest Missouri State University President John Jasinski and Missouri Western State University President Robert Vartabedian. All cited the desire to fix aging facilities and to attract more students as reasons to support the bond issue.

About 30 people total testified in favor of the bond issue; none spoke against it.

Representatives of two labor unions and the Missouri Chamber of Commerce spoke in favor of the resolution. So did Steve Mahfood, a former director of the state Department of Natural Resources who was representing the Nature Conservancy in Missouri at the hearing.

Mahfood said he is acutely aware of the effects of financial neglect on the state park system. He underscored the fact that Missouri state parks are a significant economic asset to the state. 

Considering the needs of all those who testified — and those who did not — Kelly said it would be a challenge to determine how exactly to divvy up any bond proceeds.

"Every single one of us will be disappointed," he said. "But every single one of us will also be delighted."

Kelly declined to predict whether the bond issue will have a better chance of passing this legislative session than it did in previous years.

Gov. Jay Nixon also proposed a bond issue during his State of the State address last week. Like Jones' bill, Nixon called for funding projects at colleges, universities and state parks. He also would use it to pay for renovations at Fulton State Hospital and to help pay for building projects in public school districts.

Nixon's proposal, however, does not include using bond proceeds for highway projects.

Supervising editor is Scott Swafford.

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