Courant Capitol Bureau Chief Christopher Keating reports:
The legislature’s finance committee voted Tuesday for a plan to pour $2 billion into the University of Connecticut over the next decade, taking another step toward expansion and improvement beyond $2.3 billion that has already been allocated under previous governors.
A majority of the committee, on a bipartisan basis, voted in favor of the plan. The final tally, however, had not been tabulated because legislators who were out of the room at other hearings are still allowed to vote later this afternoon.
Sen. John Fonfara, the new co-chairman of the tax-writing committee, told his colleagues that they had the chance to take an unusual vote Tuesday that would have significant long-term consequences.
“You vote on hundreds and thousands of bills in your time as a legislator,’’ Fonfara said, adding that it is relatively rare to cast a vote on an issue that will have “measurable effects’’ on the state.
“We have fallen behind as a state,’’ Fonfara said. “But the world is changing and so is our economy.’’
The proposal, by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, will sharply increase the number of science, technology, engineering and mathematics students. The plan calls for 1,400 scholarships for high-achieving students, hiring 259 new faculty members, and adding 50 doctoral fellowships.
A projected enrollment increase of 6,500 would comprise about 5,000 students at the main campus in Storrs and an additional 1,500 at the Stamford campus, which had been north of the Merritt Parkway but is now near downtown.
Currently, UConn receives 6,000 applications for engineering students, but only 500 students can be seated, Fonfara said. The new plan will increase those numbers.
But Sen. L. Scott Frantz, a Greenwich Republican, said that “my fiscal conscience that doesn’t let me sleep very well at night’’ would cause him to vote against the UConn plan as the state’s finances have gotten “scarier’’ in recent years.
“There is no more noble cause than education – other than maybe health care,’’ Frantz told his colleagues. “I don’t mean to turn the cold shower on the idea, because it’s a wonderful idea, but the price-tag is too high for this particular voter.’’
Rep. John Piscopo, a veteran Litchfield County Republican who voted in favor of UConn 21st Century in the past, said he was concerned with the Next Generation program because UConn 21st Century still has four more years remaining before it expires.
“This isn’t 1994 UConn when the library was falling apart, and the The Jungle was the jungle,’’ Piscopo said. “It’s just too much borrowing, especially right now.’’
Several legislators said that spending the money was needed to improve the university.
Recently, the nationally known Consumer Reports magazine rated UConn’s John Dempsey Hospital as last among all 258 teaching hospitals in the United States. UConn officials said the data was accurate at the time it was reported but is now outdated as the hospital has made recent improvements. Dr. John Santa, the director of the rating center at Consumer Reports, says that the report was completed with the most recently available public data.
In the May 2013 issue of the nationally known magazine, Dempsey was rated last with a score of 17 of a possible 100. The average score was 49, and the hospital with the highest score – at 69 – was the Mayo Clinic Hospital in Phoenix, Ariz.
Sen. Gary LeBeau, an East Windsor Democrat, said the state needs more jobs with “brainpower’’ with salaries of more than $100,000 per year. Currently, the state ranks 47th in the country in the number of graduates in science and math.
“That is a real problem,’’ LeBeau said of the lack of graduates. “The future is about science, technology, engineering and math – STEM. … There is no other future for Connecticut but this future. There’s really only one choice for our state.’’
Concerning other colleges, he added, “Many of the individual campuses wipe us out.’’
Rep. Pamela Sawyer, a Bolton Republican, said UConn was “in the pits’’ before the UConn 2000 proposal under then-Speaker Thomas D. Ritter and then-Gov. John G. Rowland. When anyone drove around the campus in the early 1990s, they saw the Homer Babbidge library in disrepair in the middle of the campus, she said.
“You saw a library that was under plastic. It was wrapped for 16 years,’’ Sawyer said of the years before the UConn 2000 program. “One of the first things they did was unwrap the library and rebuild it.’’
Concerning the Next Generation plan, Sawyer said, “I am loving this project. … The concern is how it fits with the state’s overall bonding package.’’