Tuesday, October 22, 2002
Colleges, universities say they could really use the funds after governor's budget cuts
Bonds could spell sweet relief
"If it doesn't pass this year, there will be problems for years to come," Del. Vince Callahan said.
By KEVIN MILLER and MICHAEL SLUSS
THE ROANOKE TIMES
BLACKSBURG - With its stately limestone architecture and dual curving staircases, Virginia Tech's Price Hall could easily be the emblematic "hall of knowledge" pictured in brochures for prospective students and researchers.
Just don't go inside.
Lead paint chips fall from window sills onto asbestos floor tiles that, when cracked, can release hazardous dust. In Price's research labs, entomologists attempt to carry out cutting-edge research on crowded lab desks from the 1930s that lack the three-prong outlets needed for most modern equipment. Researchers who need temperature-controlled environments must work elsewhere because of the 95-year-old building's drafty architecture.
Tech's entomology department would be one of dozens of beneficiaries of the roughly $1 billion in general obligation bonds on the Nov. 5 election ballot. With Election Day two weeks away, college and state officials are sending letters home with students, giving media tours and generally going public to convince recession-wary voters that the state should take on additional debt. The bonds would pay for more than 120 construction and renovation projects at public colleges and museums, plus land acquisition and capital projects at state parks.
"They [Tech administrators] have done a lot to upgrade this building, but there is only so much you can do," Timothy Mack, head of Tech's entomology department, said while standing in an aging sterilization room that looked anything but clean. "Once we get those buildings, the new grants generated will more than handle the bond cost."
To supporters, the vote is a no-brainer. The pool of applicants to Virginia's colleges and universities is expected to swell by more than 30,000 students by 2010, potentially overwhelming already overcrowded facilities. Interest rates are also at a record low and Virginia is one of only eight states with the highest AAA bond rating.
"This is obviously the best time to go into the capital markets," said Gov. Mark Warner, who has been aggressively campaigning for the bond referenda for the past month. "This means we can get these projects built at a cheaper price than we would earlier."
Virginians have strongly supported general obligation bond issues in the past, including in 1992 when nearly three-fourths of voters approved a $472.4 million bond package for higher education. Despite recent history, the bond packages' bipartisan advocates fear the ailing economy and last week's deep budget cuts on state agencies could make voters think twice about taking on an additional $1 billion in debt.
Supporters worry that stiff opposition to two sales tax referenda in Northern Virginia and Tidewater may drag down the bond packages in those voter-rich regions. And with no competitive statewide races on the ballot, turnout in the rest of the state may be low.
Campaign workers have also encountered worries that new debt could lead to tax increases. Others wonder whether proceeds from the bond sales will be used to offset budget shortfalls. In fact, Virginia's constitution requires the state to use the bond proceeds only for projects specified in the referendum.
"I don't think it's a slam-dunk at all," said Bob Denton, a Virginia Tech communications professor and political analyst. "I'm afraid ... that with all of the talk of budget cuts, there is some degree of confusion out there. And between the sniper and the Iraq talk, people are not really focusing on the election."
College foundations are chipping in hefty sums to avoid a loss. The Virginia Tech Foundation contributed $50,000 to Foundation 2002, which is leading the referendum campaign, while Radford University's Foundation gave $20,000.
Radford would use $20 million of its $27.5 million from the package to build a new fine arts center. Currently, the dance, theater and physical education programs are scattered throughout the campus and are using whatever space is available.
Tech would receive $95.3 million from the bond package to construct new agriculture, engineering and biology buildings and a 250,000-square-foot animal care facility, in addition to the renovation of numerous older buildings.
In Tech's Derring Hall, it's common to find 30 biology students or more working in a lab designed for 20. Every semester, 40 to 45 students are turned away from the introductory microbiology course due to lack of space.
"When the rooms are overcrowded and students have to move around ... spills happen and breakages happen," said Laura Link, Tech's microbiology lab coordinator. "We have been very fortunate during the time I've been here not to have any severe accidents. But small accidents can become big accidents."
In one part of the microbiology area, researchers and professors moved so many expensive pieces of equipment into the hallway to free up room in their labs that, in order to lock the doors at night, fire officials had to re - classify the hallway as a room.
Bob Jones, chairman of the biology department, said he's lost top-notch recruits because Tech often can offer just 800 square feet of research space, compared to an average 1,500 square feet at most major research universities. "The whole place looks dilapidated and gives an aura of second-class, and that's the wrong message to send," Jones said.
The referendum authorizes the state to issue as much as $250 million in debt in a given year, though Warner and future governors can scale back the selling of bonds if the economy continues to sour. The Republican sponsors of the legislation authorizing the referenda said the state will not be able to finance the projects with cash in the foreseeable future if voters reject the bond issues.
"If it doesn't pass this year, there will be problems for years to come," Del. Vince Callahan, R-Fairfax County, said last month. Callahan, the chairman of the budget-writing House Appropriations Committee, helped craft the higher education package.
Virginia leaders also consider the projects critical to the state's goal of remaining competitive with public colleges in other state such as North Carolina, which approved a $3.1 billion bond issue for higher education two years ago.
C.D. Spangler, the former president of the University of North Carolina system, told Virginia college presidents and higher education advocates earlier this month that a defeat at the polls would deliver "a body blow to higher education in Virginia."
"You, your businesses and your commonwealth cannot afford to put this reputation at risk," Spangler said.
Kevin Miller can be reached
at 381-1676 or