By Daniel Bendtsen
Via Wyoming News Exchange
LARAMIE — After the state Legislature’s Joint Appropriations Committee had already spent three days scrutinizing Gov. Matt Mead’s last supplemental budget this week, it was University of Wyoming President Laurie Nichols’s turn to offer her defense Thursday for the school’s $19 million supplemental budget request.
Outgoing JAC chairman Sen. Bruce Burns, R-Sheridan, offered particular scrutiny to UW’s requests, which he suggested weren’t emergent.
Meeting emergent needs, he said, should be the purpose of any supplemental budget request.
UW’s supplemental budget request includes $10 million in one-time state funding to create the President’s Endowed Scholarship endowment. The President’s Scholarship fund would recruit in-state students who don’t qualify for the 100 Trustees’ Scholars Awards issued each year. Establishing the new pool of funding, Nichols said, would help offer 300-400 "top level" scholarships each year and help keep more of Wyoming's best high-schoolers in state for college.
UW is also requesting another $5 million in one-time spending to boost programming in the College of Agriculture. Mead has signed off on both requests.
Burns nevertheless suggested much of the university’s requests would have been better offered during the 2018 budget session — or could wait until the 2020 budget session.
“There’s no shortage of good causes you could put money at,” Burns said. “My concern is … 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. And if all the institutions in the government did that, we’d basically have an annual budget process instead of the two-year budget process that we have now."
Burns will retire from the Legislature at the end of this month. He will be replaced as JAC’s chairman by current Senate President Eli Bebout, R-Riverton. Bebout also suggested Thursday that supplemental budget requests are “supposed to be for emergencies.”
Nichols acknowledged that a request for more scholarship funding might have asked for in the 2018 budget session had UW leaders not recognized they “had to focus on the Science Initiative building as our budget request,” Nichols said.
In February, UW’s main goal entering the budget session was to secure the release of $100 million previously appropriated for the new Science Initiative building, which broke ground in November.
Ultimately, the Legislature offered up just $85 million.
“We knew the state would still be rebounding economically,” Nichols said. “We knew that there probably would not be a lot of additional dollars, so we focused on three requests, the Science Initiative being the biggy.”
UW leaders did say the supplemental requests are now time-pressing, however.
The $10 million scholarship request would require a $10 million match generated through UW Foundation fundraising. Even if the Legislature approved in the $10 million in 2019, it would still take about two years to have the self-sustaining funds available.
The university is currently in the process of search for a new dean for the College of Agriculture.
An appropriation of $5 million for the college, Nichols said, would help attract the best possible candidate.
“When a new dean comes, we want to immediately give them resources so that they can hit the ground running,” Nichols said.
The College of Agriculture request would also require a $5 million match from fundraising. That fundraising will be easier, she said, by tapping into the statewide excitement generated from hiring a new dean.
UW administrators have suggested the College of Agriculture funding could be used to create an endowed faculty chair in forestry management, establish a equine studies major, expand the Hansen arena to include stables, and create a ranching/land management undergraduate major.
However, Nichols said it’s important not to fully commit the $10 million to specific programs until a new dean is hired and has a chance to offer input.
Despite being low on the university’s priority list, some of the greatest scrutiny legislators offered Thursday was for UW’s $1 million request to construct a new well that would irrigate the Jacoby Golf Course.
UW is expected to pay the city of Laramie more than $1 million over the next five years to irrigate the golf course using treated water.
That project created some deja vu for some legislators.
The Legislature previously appropriated $2.6 million in 2015 for UW to create a well that would irrigate the golf course.
That project went through the vetting process of the Wyoming Water Development Commission, and when the well was created, it merely tapped into a “dry hole,” according to UW trustee Kermit Brown.
Brown had been Speaker of the House when that money was appropriated and said UW’s second try at a the well should be completed outside of the normal Wyoming Water Development Commission process.
“Frankly, we didn’t have a very good experience with Water Development last time,” he said.
Brown said that if the well were constructed, it would save UW about $230,000 each year.
If that’s true, Bebout said UW should go ahead and complete the project without another JAC appropriation.
“As a business man, I would just do that internally — and you may have to do that. We’ll see what JAC does with it,” he said.