South Carolina colleges want $500 million for buildings. Will they get it?

Bristow Marchant, The State

USC students make their way up Green Street as construction is under way on the new Darla Moore School of Business. File photo by C. Aluka Berry, The State

S.C. colleges and universities want less this year from the Legislature. But the answer could be the same: No.

Colleges and universities made it a priority a year ago to get a bond bill through the S.C. Legislature that would allow them to pay for their long-term maintenance needs for campus buildings.

However, that push failed when lawmakers balked at $1.1 billion in borrowing requests, and Gov. Henry McMaster threatened to veto the bond bill if it passed.

The dollar amount the colleges are seeking this year has been winnowed down to $500 million and, with road repairs addressed in 2017, the competition for state money should be less.

But lawmakers are unsure even a smaller borrowing bill for higher education can win passage.

State Sen. Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, the Republican majority leader in the Senate, worries the proposed mix of school projects and other infrastructure needs in the borrowing bill hasn’t been vetted by lawmakers to ensure it is the best use of taxpayer dollars.

“The big problem is the way it’s been handled,” Massey said. “This has not gone through the normal committee process. … If it did, the projects could be vetted, higher education leaders would have to justify each project, and we could decide if these are really the highest priorities.”

Colleges say the money is needed to prevent bigger repair bills in the future and hold down spiraling tuition costs, an issue for thousands of S.C. students and their parents.

State Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg, supports a bond bill, but she doesn’t think it likely the Legislature will pass its first borrowing bill since 2001.

“The last time we passed a bond bill, I was the Democratic leader, and we passed it by one vote,” she said.

For the University of South Carolina, which requested nearly $178 million from the bond bill in 2017, passing the bill remains a top legislative priority. The school’s biggest request is for $50 million to start construction on a new medical school at the BullStreet development in Columbia.

USC wants to create a new research and innovation hub, said spokesman Wes Hickman. A new medical school campus also would allow USC’s medical school to move from its current location at Columbia’s Dorn VA Medical Center, where its nominal $1-a-year lease is about to increase dramatically.

“Federal guidelines now call for market-based leasing,” Hickman said. “By 2030, it could cost us $8 million.”

And the need isn’t only for a new medical school.

Just like the state’s roads need constant maintenance and repair, South Carolina’s colleges and universities need regular upkeep, Hickman warns.

But Senate Majority Leader Massey doesn’t think the state’s biggest education needs are at its largest universities.

“If you walk around USC or Clemson, you see construction going on,” he said. “The smaller colleges probably have greater needs.”

At USC Aiken, for example, a more than 40-year-old heating and cooling system contributes to mold problems and high electric bills at the school’s Penland Administration Building. The school has asked for $3.5 million to fix the problem.

“It’s a prime example of a problem I’m sure every college has,” said Rep. Bill Taylor, R-Aiken. “This state budgets in a crazy way. … We should really set aside X amount every year for maintenance.”

Even if a bond bill doesn’t pass, Massey thinks colleges might get some help via money from the state’s capital reserve funds, or savings accounts, in the coming year.

But Cobb-Hunter worries lawmakers missed their chance to pass a borrowing bill last year. This year, many state representatives have the prospect of imminent re-election campaigns next fall weighing on their minds.

“I’m hopeful we can ensure passage, but I’m realistic,” she said. “It doesn’t take much to get cold feet in an election year.”

She added, “If we continue to kick the can down the road, it only adds to the cost. The time to act on this was now.”


Bristow Marchant writes for The State, where this article originally ran. 

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