When the University of Wyoming Board of Trustees signed off in May on $76.1 million worth of capital construction requests for the 2020 budget session, Trustee John McKinley was concerned.
He chairs the trustees’ facilities contracting committee and he was worried that asking legislators for that much this year might not be the most politically savvy move.
“My concern is that we’ve overloaded the Legislature with capital construction requests,” he said.
McKinley wondered allowed whether it would be smarter for UW to save some of the construction requests until the 2021 supplemental budget session.
However, UW’s governmental relations director Meredith Asay noted that the university faced particular scrutiny in the 2019 legislative session for that type of political maneuvering.
When UW brought $19 million worth of supplemental budget requests forth to the Legislature’s Joint Appropriations Committee in December, both the outgoing chairman and the incoming chairman were critical of the university’s requests.
Outgoing JAC Sen. Bruce Burns, R-Sheridan, said that “the university seems to say ‘OK, we’ve got 10 needs, so we’ll ask for five during the regular budget cycle and five during the supplemental,’ which is actually not the purpose of the supplemental budget in the first place.”
Current JAC chairman, Sen. Eli Bebout, R-Riverton, also said that the supplemental budget process is “supposed to be for emergencies.”
UW President Laurie Nichols acknowledged that some of the requests might have come in the 2018 budget session had UW leaders not recognized they “had to focus on the Science Initiative building as our budget request.”
Asay warned the trustees at their May 15 facilities contracting committee meeting that, if some of the construction costs were saved until 2021, the Legislature would likely put “an added emphasis on the university to explain the emergency nature” of the requests.
McKinley said he only thought that emphasis applies to operational funding, not buildings.
Asay was skeptical, but the trustees decided to move forward most of the requests this year regardless.
Fortunately for them, Asay was right — at least when it comes to a new direction coming out of the governor’s office.
This month, Gov. Mark Gordon announced he’s putting “his personal stamp on the budget process,” saying in a press release that “any supplemental requests made a year from now will have to meet an urgent demand or be in response to an emergency.”
“My aim is to truly make this a two-year budget as our constitution calls for,” he said.
His communications director, Michael Pearlman, later confirmed to the Laramie Boomerang that Gordon’s emphasis will also apply to construction projects, which are brought through the Legislature under a bill separate from the normal biennial budget bill.
Under a new timeline for a review by the State Construction Department of capital construction requests, UW had to sign off on its requests for the 2020 budget session by the end of May.
This year, UW is asking for $49.6 million for a renovation of War Memorial Stadium’s west side stands and the Corbett Pool, which is used by the university’s swimming and diving teams.
The Legislature’s Select Committee on School Facilities is also being asked to weigh $27.5 million for a new UW Lab School, a public school that jointly serves as a place to train future teachers while also educating 270 of Albany County School District No. 1’s students.
The one project the trustees didn’t move forward on was a request for a $35 million renovation of the College of Education building.
College of Education Dean Ray Reutzel has said the renovation is needed to both to upgrade an outdated facility while turning the existing UW Lab School, which now exists as a wing of the College of Education, into a space that can make the building house all of the college’s faculty.
The trustees’ facilities contracting committee voted 2-1 to have the $35 million request brought before the full board of trustees in May.
However, no one was willing to make a motion to put the request to the Legislature.
Trustee Jeff Marsh said that although “it’s pretty apparent” that there’s a need for a renovation of the college, he said that a lack of “swing space” for UW Lab School students means a new K-8 school will need to be constructed before a renovation of the College of Education building can move forward.
“Unfortunately, I think what happens just chronologically there is that our College of Education is going to have to take a backseat to the UW Lab School,” he said in May.