The Finance Revenue and Bonding Committee approved a 10-year plan Tuesday to borrow more than $1.5 billion to expand the University of Connecticut.
The plan was proposed by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and received bipartisan support among lawmakers on the Finance Committee. The legislation passed the committee on a 43-7 vote. The additional funding will be used to build class space and hire more professors in order to enroll more than 6,000 additional math, engineering, and science students.
Sen. John Fonfara, a Hartford Democrat who co-chairs the committee, said the plan was a rare opportunity for lawmakers to support legislation that would have a demonstrably positive impact on the state in the future.
“I believe strongly that this is one of those opportunities where we’ll all look back and be proud that we had a hand in making this happen. What we’re talking about here is truly a transformative opportunity,” he said.
Sen. Gary LeBeau, D-East Windsor, said the state investment in UConn will help to grow Connecticut’s future in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics industries.
“There is no other future for Connecticut but this future. If we intend going forward to have the kind of lifestyle and the kind growth that we’ve had in the past . . . there’s really only one choice for the state and once choice for this committee, which is to go ahead with this proposal,” he said.
However, some lawmakers questioned whether to add more spending commitments to UConn at a time when the state is facing a $2.2 billion deficit over the next two years while previous investment programs in the university are still ongoing.
Rep. John Piscopo, R-Thomaston, said he supported “21st Century UConn,” an initiative which expanded on “UConn 2000,” a 20-year, $2.3 billion bonding investment the legislature passed in 1995.
But Piscopo said there is still another four years of spending left to the “21st Century UConn” initiative. While he said he would have supported “retooling” the money committed for that program, it didn’t seem appropriate to dedicate additional spending when the university is not currently in bad shape.
“This is a much-improved UConn. This isn’t UConn in dire straits,” he said. “. . . It’s just too much borrowing. Bottom line, it’s just too much borrowing, especially right now.”
Rep. Sean Williams agreed. The Republican from Watertown said it was the wrong time to be adding to Connecticut’s debt.
“I am cognizant of the fact that our state’s debt has been consistently ranked among the worse, if not the worst, in the entire country. We have not, in my opinion, as a state prioritized well which projects we’re going to fund and which projects we’re not going to fund,” Williams said.
Williams said there is a point at which the state’s indebtedness works against the legislature’s efforts to create jobs.
Sen. Scott Frantz, R-Greenwich, also voted against the bill over concerns about the state’s debt. He said the new funding would help improve an already “wonderful program,” but he couldn’t support “adding an additional layer of debt.”
“This is my fiscal conscience that doesn’t let me sleep very well at night,” he said.
But by and large, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle supported the plan even if many had concerns over the water supply to the university’s main campus in Storrs. The university has been considering a number of options to increase its access to water.
Sen. Kevin Witkos, R-Canton, said he objected to one plan that the school was considering that would transfer water from reservoirs along the Farmington River. He urged the school to look elsewhere.
“We’re robbing Peter to pay Paul here. Those communities that reside along the Farmington River . . . would see a detriment to allow another community to prosper. One would wither away,” he said.
Aside from water supply concerns, Witkos said the state was on the “right track” by investing in the university.
“We often speak about what is the responsibility of government and no matter what party you’re from, everyone says ‘education.’ So we’re putting our money where our mouth is this time,” he said.
Malloy issued a statement lauding the committee for passing the bill as well as another piece of legislation that establishes a $200 million investment fund to develop bio-science related products.
“By making the investments called for in these two pieces of legislation, we will take steps to regain our standing as a leader in innovation and make our state an attractive place to invest, work, and do business,” he said.