Christine Stuart photo
Sen. John Fonfara, D-Hartford, leads the debate on the bill (Christine Stuart photo)

The Senate approved a bill Saturday that would dole out $1.5 billion in state bonds to the University of Connecticut over the next 10 years.

The bill, championed by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and University of Connecticut President Susan Herbst, passed the Senate 29-5.

The legislation seeks to bolster UConn’s role as a research institution and expand its science, technology, engineering, and mathematics programs, known as STEM classes.

Senate President Donald Williams said the bill is a crucial step in preparing a new generation of workers.

“We cannot afford to be left behind when it comes to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics,” Williams said. “These STEM jobs are growing three times faster than any other jobs in our economy. We hear from employers all the time that they have jobs, and they go begging, because they don’t have people with the technical expertise required. We cannot afford to have those jobs leave Connecticut.”

Sen. Gary Lebeau, D-East Hartford, said the investment is necessary even if it means blowing a hole in the state’s pocketbook.

“This is one of the largest investments any of us will ever vote on in our legislative career,” Lebeau said.

“This is the direction that technology is headed and Connecticut’s business and workforce must go there if we want to be more competitive in this global marketplace . . . this is the bill that we need,” Sen. John Fonfara, D-Hartford, said.

According to the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Economics and Statistics Administration, STEM workers are earning 26 percent more than workers in other fields.

The Next Generation funds would be used to hire 259 new faculty members, enroll more than 6,500 new undergraduate students, create a STEM honors program, and build new laboratories and facilities to house STEM classes and research. The funds would also be used to move UConn’s Greater Hartford Campus from West Hartford to the downtown area and bolster an existing project to improve housing at the Stamford campus. The Avery Point campus also would get $15 million to rebuild academic buildings and its docks.

The lawmakers approved an amendment before passing the bill that would mandate annual reports from the university showing how the money is spent as well as a summary of the “research and economic development” related to the initiative. It also calls for the university to work with industry experts to guide the initiative.

Fonfara said the university would work with “chief science and technology officers from the industry” and create a research and advisory firm.

“The metrics will be in place and an advisory committee of leading Connecticut industries will be at the table,” he said. “That’s a comprehensive package not only of understanding what needs to be done, but shedding light on if it’s actually being done.”

Sen. Minority Leader John McKinney said he had faith that current UConn leadership would get the most of the money.

“It’s a lot of money and I was very skeptical,” McKinney said. “But two things pushed me in support. One is my faith and belief in President Herbst and the UConn administration . . . the question isn’t, ‘Is $1.5 too much?’ The question is, ‘Do we have the guts to prioritize?’ This is a priority and the right priority.”

But a few Senate Republicans were not convinced.

Sen. Joe Markley, R-Southington, said it wasn’t a matter of supporting the idea, but finding the funds.

“I simply don’t believe we have enough money,” Markley said. “I’ve always been concerned about the amount of bonding we do in this state . . . I am less concerned about us being number one as a public university than I am about us basically being number 50 in economic growth.”

Sen. Rob Kane, R-Watertown, said because UConn has already been given billions from the state over the past decade, lawmakers should be more frugal.

“Our outstanding debt is $19 billion and of that, 11 is for UConn,” Kane said. “We are not showing restraint and we are not doing it equitably or fairly.”

But the majority of senators were adamant that the investment would pay off.

“This goes against my nature and it’s hard to swallow,” Sen. Tony Guglielmo, R-Stafford Springs, said. “But when I listen . . . to the leadership on the other side of the isle talk about what we can accomplish with this type of investment, it makes sense to me.”

The bill seeks to expand the 20-year commitment of $2.3 billion in bonds that the legislature allocated to the university in 1995, known as UConn 2000, that has funded infrastructure improvements.

Sen. Majority Leader Martin Looney said renewing the commitment and refocusing it to address modern economic needs is a crucial next step.

“Success breeds success,” Looney said. “Academic development can be a spur in so many ways for business and economic development. This is a continuing investment in our future.”

The Office of Fiscal Analysis estimated that the Next Generation bonds would cost around $2.4 billion, including $814.3 million in interest costs if they are issued with a 5 percent interest rate, but the lawmakers said much of this money can be made back.

The initiative may bring over a half-billion dollars back in business activities and support more than 30,000 construction jobs and 4,000 permanent jobs, along with $270 million in new research dollars.

The Next Generation proposal has received backing from more than 100 companies and business associations that signed on to endorse the bill last month along with seven labor and civic organizations. 

Malloy said this is a testament to the broad appeal the initiative will have, and a promising financial impact.

“Focusing state resources on our flagship university ensures that our graduates will have the skills and background to compete for the high-tech, bioscience, engineering, and digital media jobs we are vigorously pursuing in Connecticut,” Malloy said in a statement after the Senate vote. “I applaud Senate President Donald WIlliams and the many legislators who worked to get this bill passed — and in doing so helped position UConn as one of the leading research institutions in the nation.”

The bill now heads to the House.