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OGDEN — Why should the threat of an earthquake carry more weight than electrical or mechanical problems when considering which college campus should get state funding for its most urgent building need?

What are the "secret" or unwritten rules among the Utah Board of Regents that give one project a higher priority than another?

What happens to regents' credibility when they forward their prioritized list of building needs to the State Building Board, only to have that board reshuffle the picks?

"That option has to be open," Building Board chairman Larry Jardine said in response to the last question.

Members of both boards met recently, but some unanswered questions remained after the two sides discussed the capital needs of public higher education.

Questions like: With surplus office space on every campus to the tune of over 580,000 total square feet systemwide, how should that impact requests for more buildings?

It was a meeting combining facts and mixed feelings for those like regent David Grant, who worries whether lawmakers care more about building prisons or helping out higher education.

Since 1987, the state has given public higher education more than $734 million to buy land, design and construct new buildings and to fix up old ones.

The $28.9 million doled out for all colleges and universities by the 2004 Legislature, however, marked the leanest year since 1991, with the exception of 1995 and 2000, when state funding for capital needs on Utah's nine public campuses was even less than last session.

Regents talked with Building Board members about nine higher-education projects that school presidents identified as their highest priorities.

The Utah College of Applied Technology, which makes requests separately from the regents, also is asking for $17 million for two buildings.

Also on the Building Board's list are 10 more building projects for other state agencies, including the $50 million needed for the ongoing renovation of the state Capitol.

Next month, the Building Board will prioritize its list, probably breaking it up into two sections, one that board members will push for during the 2005 Legislature and one that will wait until 2006. Gov. Olene Walker will also make her own recommendations, and lawmakers will have the final decision on which projects to fund.

According to Jardine, the two higher-ed priorities most likely to make the Building Board's cut for the next session are a $71 million project at the University of Utah's Marriott Library and a new $37.7 million "digital learning center" for Utah Valley State College. Structural engineers in recent years decided the U. library is in serious need of seismic upgrades.

UVSC officials are asking the state for the full amount, while U. officials report having $22.7 million in "other funds" to help finance their project, which would mean the state only needs to pony up about $48.5 million.

Yet another lingering question Friday was about the regents' process for considering requests from smaller schools like Southern Utah University, which wants an $11.9 million teacher education center. Regents ranked SUU's project last on their list of priorities.

More than two-thirds of state funds for higher-education buildings since 1987 have gone to four schools, led by $178.4 million for Utah State University, $140.5 million for the U., $102.4 million for UVSC and $93.5 million for Salt Lake Community College.

Utah Commissioner of Higher Education Rich Kendell said he will take time to challenge "assumptions" regents make while prioritizing building needs.


E-mail: sspeckman@desnews.com