The Legislature’s decision late Thursday night not to fund any capital construction projects for the 2021-2022 biennium means that about $100 million of University of Wyoming projects are likely on hold.
Ahead of this year’s budget session, UW had asked legislators to provide half of the funds for a roughly $25 million renovation and expansion of the College of Law building, as well as half the funds for renovation of War Memorial Stadium’s west stands and a rebuild of Corbett Pool. The latter two projects were expected to cost about $75 million.
The university had planned to raise funds for the other $50 million needed for the three construction projects.
Athletic director Tom Burman has said that securing a rebuild of Corbett Pool is his department’s greatest need.
“It’s a project that needs to happen if we’re going to have men’s and women’s swimming and diving at the university in 2030,” he said last year. “I don’t want to retire without getting the pool done, otherwise somebody’s going to have to drop the program. I don’t want to be part of that and I won’t be part of that.”
Burman said that renovating War Memorial’s west side is important to bring the stadium up to fans’ expectations. He’s also said that new suites planned for the renovation would help bring in more revenue for the university.
Without the legislative funding this year, UW spokesman Chad Baldwin told the Boomerang on Friday morning that “the ability to proceed with these projects is probably quite limited.”
“It doesn’t mean the end of these projects forever,” Baldwin said. “We’ll look in the next budget cycle to see if we can bring these back. Certainly the needs are still there, but the message from the Legislature and the governor is clear that this isn’t the time to proceed.”
As the in-fighting between the House and Senate appeared to be threatening the state’s capital construction bill this week, Gov. Mark Gordon sent a letter to legislative leaders, asking them to at least fund some projects he deemed critical. UW’s projects were not listed among those.
Gordon had previously asked the Legislature to provide $12 million for the law school construction in a January letter.
UW has already moved forward on both Level I and Level II studies — two of three studies that are defined by Wyoming statute and typically occur before the construction of public buildings. In September, the trustees signed off on an external design for the renovated College of Law that was created by an outside architectural firm.
The project would add about 19,000 square feet and renovate about 23,000 square feet of existing space.
Without the state funding for the new law building, College of Law Dean Klint Alexander said in an email there’s still some “possibility of pursuing the project in phases or reconfiguring the project to make it work cost-wise, but it is important to do it right for the long run and stick with the current plan at present.”
“The University of Hawaii and William & Mary law schools recently completed similar projects for less than $10 million in private and state funds and it took them 4-5 years to get there,” he said.
During UW’s budget hearing last year, Alexander told the trustees that fundraising for the expansion had occupied much of his time in the previous year.
To date, the project has already received more that $5 million in gifts, pledges and verbal commitments from more than 50 donors.
“We are fast approaching $6 million,” Alexander said.
Some of those donations have already been received in full, and other pledges are being made over a 3-5 year period.
“Some are contingent upon a state match,” Alexander said. “We expect to collect on all pledges if the Legislature agrees to the project in the next session, but it is difficult to speculate beyond that.”
Even without funding from the state this year, Alexander said that fundraising will continue.
“Seeing this project through to its conclusion is both necessary and critical to maintaining our (American Bar Association) accreditation, educating our students, meeting the state’s need for providing free legal services to Wyoming citizens, and honoring the legacy of Senator Alan K. Simpson during his lifetime,” he said.
UW’s College of Law is one of the few in the country to guarantee clinical experience for its students. The ABA has said the clinics’ current facilities are inadequate, and the expansion was aimed at bringing those clinics into the main College of Law building.
While the college’s Defender Aid Clinic is housed in the college’s main building, most are currently housed in separate facilities south of Grand Avenue.
Those clinics that provide the state with $3.5 million of free legal services each year, and Alexander has said that figure could increase to $5 million with he expansion.
While the dean said the Legislature’s inaction is disappointing, he’s appreciative that legislators did provide $1.25 million in the budget bill to help support the law school’s clinical programming. He said that was the “first targeted appropriation for the College of Law in more than a decade.”
“The building project match is a temporary setback, but we have navigated our way through many challenges during the past four years, and we are still very much in the ‘red zone’ offensively on this project,” he said.
Before the House and Senate began negotiations last week, the House had voted to provide $50 million for the requested projects while the Senate voted not to funding any money.
During initial negotiations last week, Rep Bob Nicholas, R-Cheyenne, had described the Senate’s position as penny-wise, pound-foolish.
“We want to maximize the physical, on-the-ground construction that we can do with using matching dollars as a tool,” he said. “If we can take a dollar and make it two dollars or three dollars, there’s a logic to that. … If you have the ability to double your money, that’s money well spent.”
Nicholas said the projects would also help the state’s construction crews working during difficult economic times.