Presidents whittle down projects funded by proposed bond issue

Sunday, February 8th 2004, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

Voters may get to decide the future of a $500 million higher-education building program if college presidents can convince the governor and Legislature to support the measure.

University presidents are going through a list of potential projects to be funded by the bond issue, including a cancer complex at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center and expansion of Oklahoma State University's downtown Tulsa campus.

Other projects could include a new science building at Northeastern State University in Tahlequah and a performing arts auditorium at Oklahoma City Community College.

OU and OSU would get nearly half the funds, four-year regional schools would get about 28 percent and community colleges would get the rest.

College presidents will present their final list of projects Friday to the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education. The package will then go to lawmakers, who will decide how to finance the bonds.

Annual payments to satisfy a $500 million bond issue for 20 years would be about $50 million.

"Even the light switches start wearing out eventually, and that's what has happened on our campuses," said Jim Cook, head of the Council of Presidents.

The last higher-education bond issue was in 1992. Since then, enrollment at the 25 state colleges and universities has grown by 20,000.

"That's a long time without an infusion of capital, whether it's for your own business, your home or for your college," said Cook, president of Rose State College.

Cook said academic leaders have had informal discussions with lawmakers about the plan, but it has not been discussed with the governor.

Gov. Brad Henry did not mention a higher-education bond issue in his state of the state address last week, but did propose a $75 million bond issue to build a cancer center.

Money raised from a cigarette tax could be used to help finance the bond issue.

The governor also proposed a $65 million bond issue to make capital improvements for the colleges and universities.

The college presidents say their bond proposal fits with the governor's recently announced Economic Development Generating Excellence program, which considers higher education and research key elements for improving the state's economy.

A similar proposal was ruled unconstitutional by the state Supreme Court last year because money was not allocated to specific projects.

The $175 million bond proposal was challenged by a citizen whose attorney, Richard Cassidy, labeled it "nothing more than pork barrel."

The justices said the higher education projects were legitimate because they were clearly defined, but they would not let the bond package move forward.

The new package would give money to every college and university, if it goes before voters and is approved.

Voters passed a $350 million higher education bond issue in 1992 with more than 70 percent approval.