A $2.1 billion plan for UConn moves forward

The General Assembly has paved the way for the University of Connecticut to begin dramatically expanding enrollment at its Storrs and Stamford campuses.

“This is one of the greatest investments we can do,” Rep. Betty Boukous, D-Plainville, said. The state House of Representatives voted Wednesday morning on a bill to borrow $1.6 billion to overhaul the state’s flagship university over the next decade.

The initiative -– dubbed “Next Generation” by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy who proposed it -– will provide UConn with the funding to construct state-of-the art science, technology and engineering classrooms to accommodate a 30 percent jump in enrollment over the next 10 years.

“This is one of the largest investments any of us are ever going to vote on in our entire legislative careers,” Sen. Gary LeBeau, the chairman of the legislature’s Commerce Committee, said before the Senate voted on the initiative earlier this week. “It’s about providing the future for the state of Connecticut… This is going to transform us.”

The state budget approved by the House and Senate also provided $15 million for the university to hire 66 new faculty and counselors to accommodate an estimated 650 additional students starting in the 2014-15 school year.

“Next Generation will create breakthroughs for the state,” UConn’s Provost Mun Choi, a mechanical engineer, said after watching the state Senate approve the construction package.

When pitching the $2.1 billion construction and faculty plan to the legislature during his budget address in February, the Democratic governor said while people from the state may have invented the submarine, typewriter, anesthesia, helicopters and the Frisbee, Connecticut is no longer a world leader.

“This funding will drive innovation, enhance job creation and spur economic growth… Together, we will fuel Connecticut’s economy with new technologies and new employers; with more highly skilled graduates, more patents, more licenses and more high-wage jobs,” Malloy said.

Business agrees.

More than 100 businesses have thrown their support behind the initiative.

But not everyone is supportive, including some Republican legislators who are concerned with the price tag and what this growth will mean for the state’s other public college system, which is struggling to cope with declining enrollment.

“I simply don’t believe we have the money… The cost [of borrowing] has created a tax burden that has killed economic growth,” said Sen. Joe Markley, R-Southington.

Concern was also raised over why the state is left picking up almost the entire bill for construction.

Rep. Gail Lavielle, R-Wilton, and the minority leader on the Commerce Committee, said she thinks UConn’s foundation and endowment should pick up some of the bill.

“I think I would like to see more effort on UConn’s side,” she said.

With a 29-5 vote in favor in the Senate and a 120-21 vote in the House on the construction package, the bill heads to the governor’s desk for his signature.

This bill fully funded his requested construction package, and funded $15 million of the $17.4 million he had requested for faculty and staff to accommodate the influx of students for the fiscal year that begins July 2014 .

Future increases in state appropriations will be necessary to hire about 400 faculty and staff needed to fill these new and renovated classrooms. The plan estimates an additional $95 million a year in operating costs will be needed for staff by the 2023-24 school year.

“We are going to start with some renovation of facilities that were in the pipeline, but accelerate it because of the new funding that is now available,” Choi said. “The effects of this will be seen as soon as next year.”

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