Amid Budget Surplus, Tennessee's Public Colleges Make Big Ask For New Buildings | Nashville Public Radio

Amid Budget Surplus, Tennessee's Public Colleges Make Big Ask For New Buildings

Nov 14, 2016

The state has a budget surplus, and government agencies have a lot of ideas of how to spend it. 

During a series of budget hearings this month, they're making their case to the governor about what should be funded next year. And for Tennessee's public higher education systems — which run 50 technical colleges, community colleges and universities — that request includes a big line item: $340 million for capital projects.

Among the top proposals is $24 million to expand the growing Rutherford County campus of Motlow State Community College, as well as $90 million to pay for a new engineering building at UT Knoxville.

Tennessee Higher Education Commission director Mike Krause acknowledges this year's request is a tall order.

"We're well aware we're not going to be able to fund that deeply, but the needs are all there," he says.

The state rarely, if ever, meets all of the department's recommendations for capital funding. For example, in this year's budget, higher education officials received half of what they requested. But colleges have an extra incentive to ask the state to pay for more: The more they receive in public funding, the less they have to raise tuition.

Gov. Bill Haslam, for his part, says he's especially interested in spending part of the state's budget surplus on campus upkeep and one-time repairs, known as capital maintenance. The higher education commission is recommending $164 million on these projects — another large sum, but one to which the governor seems receptive.

"As a state, we've ignored [this] too long," he says. "We realize we're trying to climb back up the hill, and while we're in the middle of good times, we will keep doing that."

Once the governor makes his decision, it will still be up the state legislature to sign off on a final budget for fiscal year 2017.