Do you remember making your Christmas wish list as a child? You probably didn’t put socks, long underwear or rubber boots at the top of this list. You circled the fences, looking for a video game console, a motorized bicycle, maybe an American Girl doll.
Well, Christmas is more than 10 months away, but for many Minnesota government agencies and private organizations, it’s wish list time—and our two state-funded higher education systems have a backlog of requests that are more than more like a winter coat than a PlayStation.
The Legislature doesn’t convene until next week, but the University of Minnesota and the state of Minnesota have already launched a joint marketing campaign for about $1 billion in projects to be included in this year’s capital investment bill.
We won’t make it: Many of these requests are no-doubt, slam-dunk, lights-on projects that should have been funded years ago.
Minnesota’s state system, for example, has 16 items on its priority list, with a total “request” of $541.1 million. Of that amount, her first priority is $200 million for preserving and replacing higher education assets. This money, if approved, will be spent on 29 campuses (including RCTC and Winona State) to repair roofs, update HVAC systems, and repair/update electrical and plumbing systems.
Likewise, the University of Minnesota system has numerous aging buildings in urgent need of asbestos abatement, HVAC updates, sprinkler installations and other nuts and bolts repairs. One example: The heating plant on the Crookston campus was built in 1911, and without a $6 million upgrade, the entire 40-building campus can be cooled if a breakdown occurs.
Astute readers, at this point, should ask themselves an important question: How did we get to this point? In a country that supposedly values education and its youth, why are we sending thousands of students to outdated, mechanically deficient dormitories, classrooms, laboratories and sports facilities?
The short answer is that Minnesota’s capital investment in higher education is years behind. From 2004-13, for example, the state contracted for nearly $1.4 billion in projects for its college and university systems. In the 10 years after that, however, the bond for higher ed fell by about $300 million—a 21% drop—and the U of M and the state of Minnesota received only 29% of the funds required to preserve the assets.
In the last three years alone, asset preservation requests totaling $450 million yielded only $44.7 million in funding.
Given that interest rates were incredibly low for much of that period, this lack of investment was a costly mistake, and now Minnesota has no choice but to pay the tab. A leaky roof, after all, doesn’t fix itself. Asbestos does not disappear over time. Plumbing and electrical systems in 50-year-old buildings are running on borrowed time.
We’re not saying that the Legislature and Governor Walz should just rubber-stamp the entire $1 billion request from the University of Minnesota and the state of Minnesota. Cities, counties and private organizations will submit their requests for matching dollars in the coming weeks, and most of these requests will merit serious consideration. Once all the requirements are met and there is a semi-consensus on the total amount of the bond bill, we will have a better idea of how much Minnesota should invest in higher education infrastructure.
However, we already know enough to state that $200 million would be just a small step in the right direction. In fact, Minnesota could easily invest far more than that in its colleges and universities (and the students who attend those schools) without putting anything shiny, exciting, and fancy under the higher education Christmas tree.