Laramie is a college town as we depend in many ways on the success of the University of Wyoming.
UW officials are now working with the state Legislature in developing plans to replace the university’s relatively outdated residence halls. This is a critical endeavor for UW and Laramie, as we tend to buy the arguments made by the administration that these facilities will help attract the best and brightest and grow the institution.
At this point, we hope the UW Housing Task Force — which includes House Speaker Steve Harshman — will focus on its mission of determining how the project will be financed so its members can sell their plans to the full Legislature in 2019. The current facilities are already overburdened, with Hill and Crane halls off the table for use. There would be significant cost to bringing those older halls back online, so let’s make sure the project to build new facilities moves forward right away.
There are already members of the Senate and House who are skeptical of any new facilities at UW. And strap in, because based on primary results, the Senate will veer farther to the right in 2019.
A focused and united task force will be critical to this effort proceeding intact. And in observing the task force’s work, we hope a couple of matters are resolved quickly.
For one, Harshman has floated the idea that four new residence halls could be constructed in a way that spells out “UWYO” from the air. We don’t think this idea serves the task force’s stated mission of settling on how to pay for the new residence halls.
The design component should have practicality balanced with attractiveness. It’s worth the hefty price tag to do it right. There needs to be pleasant landscaping, amenities and modern features that will be appealing to prospective students. We could do a lot better by considering how to make those things happen rather than putting more questions on the table.
This distraction only gives cannon fodder to the project’s opponents in the Legislature. The speaker should drop it and move on.
The best way to move forward now is for the task force to decide on a funding mechanism as soon as possible and have its members really show sincere buy-in to their colleagues.
The Wyoming Legislative Service Office staff told lawmakers state funding is the best option for the new buildings, but some task force members have pushed for exploring private-public partnership options. LSO staff advised that while a public-private partnership would move things along more quickly, it would ultimately cost more. It’s also possible to invest money from the Permanent Mineral Trust Fund, though some task force members have advised that could violate the fiduciary responsibility of the Treasurer’s office. The state could issue bonds, though doing so would obligate a substantial amount of future revenue that could have been invested in securities. A one-time appropriation from the state’s savings is also on the table.
There’s no particular consensus on this board on the best approach to financing. It might be reasonable for lawmakers to explore a combination of the aforementioned approaches. But the task force needs to get over disagreements, settle on a financing method and sell it. If the task force members are not all on the same page, it will be a lot harder to convince the whole body of lawmakers on the arrangement.
Whatever approach prevails, task force members and UW officials need to pound the table that this is different from other university facilities projects in that it has payback. It’s likely to be completely paid back throughout the life of the dorms, so it’s not as though UW is building another facility that guarantees maintenance burden without returning revenue.
Whatever you think of these questions, it’s clear the biggest mistake would be to delay or complicate the matter unnecessarily. This needs to get done, and holding it up with indecisiveness and/or pie-in-the-sky ideas is a disservice to the state.