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Capital Idea: Colleges Hope For Cash

Kankakee Community College
Many projects, like this one at Kankakee Community College, were frozen mid-construction during the recent state budget impasse.

Officials from each of Illinois' public universities traveled to the statehouse this week to tell lawmakers about their leaky roofs, outdated science labs and broken air conditioners, in hopes of getting funding to fix them. It’s part of a push toward a public works program, known in the legislature as a capital bill. Gov. J.B. Pritzker has promised the state will spend billions of dollars in infrastructure improvements, and public agencies are lining up to ask for a piece of that pie.

The state’s higher education sector is particularly hungry. Over the past 14 years, they’ve had only one capital appropriation of any significance — about $1.6 billion via the Illinois Jobs Now! program. But those dollars were based on bond proceeds, and several officials testified they’re still waiting for some of the funds to be released. Meanwhile, the backlog of deferred maintenance needs grew from $2.7 billion in fiscal year 2005 to $6.2 billion at the end of FY 2018.

The Illinois Board of Higher Education wants to use the “industry standard” maintenance budget, which would mean allotting 2 percent of the facility replacement cost to routine maintenance every year. On Thursday, IBHE interim executive director Nyle Robinson asked the House capital appropriations committee for that amount plus an extra 1 percent ($169,262,500). If such a request is approved every year, it would still take 31 years to cover the backlog, Robinson said.

He presented an overall request for $2.14 billion as a “pared down” version of the requests from all nine public universities. Those school officials then addressed the committee to explain deferred-maintenance disasters and shovel-ready dreams. For example, Eastern Illinois University President David Glassman told the committee that students take science courses in an ancient building so leaky they have to use tarps and tents to shield their experiments, with ceilings too low to provide proper ventilation and electrical wiring that can’t support modern equipment. Western Illinois University is still waiting for funds to construct a new performing arts center, which was approved back in 1978. Governors State University is asking for a new classroom building. Chicago State University, where more than half the students are parents, remains the only state school that lacks an on-site childcare center.

To have any hope of getting those wishes granted, these officials may have to commit to new spending goals. Rep. Will Davis(D-Homewood), who previously led a legislative task force on fair practices in contracting, grilled each official about their track record of hiring minority vendors.

Hearing no satisfactory answers, Davis suggested adding those hiring goals to whatever multi-billion-dollar capital bill the legislature approves. Hours after the meeting, he repeated that idea.


"Why not consider embedding language in the capital bill that directs that you must have diverse spend, and sets some parameters for what that means, and increase the goals on what that means as well, and make the people who want this money so bad work harder to get it?" he said. "If you can't get there, then why should we give you the money? Why should your business benefit from state spending when you can't seem to find enough diverse vendors in order to do business or to have this happen?"

Thursday’s hearing involved no vote; it was a subject matter hearing. Davis and other committee members indicated that, in future hearings, they will ask witnesses to have five years worth of detailed spending data broken down by racial and ethnic categories.


After a long career in newspapers (Dallas Observer, The Dallas Morning News, Anchorage Daily News, Illinois Times), Dusty returned to school to get a master's degree in multimedia journalism. She began work as Education Desk reporter at NPR Illinois in September 2014.
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