SALT LAKE CITY — State funding for new facilities for the University of Utah's School of Medicine and money for institutional growth and compensation are among the Utah Board of Regents' legislative priorities.
As the 2017 Utah Legislature gets underway Monday, the overseers of the Utah System of Higher Education look to address unmet capital needs on the state's colleges and universities, address institutional growth and hold the line on tuition increases.
"Funding is always a major issue. A year ago, the board adopted a strategic plan so that really guided our funding request this year. We're focused on priorities that will help us advance affordable participation, timely completion and innovative discovery," said David Buhler, Utah's commissioner of higher education.
Three capital projects totaling more than $100 million — a new facility for the U. School of Medicine, a health and wellness facility at Dixie State University, and a major renovation of Weber State University's Lindquist Hall — are also part of the regents' legislative ask.
"Our top priority is the University of Utah MED project," Buhler said.
The regents are requesting $50 million in state funding for the facility. The Medical Education and Discovery Center, or MED, and rehabilitation hospital complex will replace three medical education and clinical facilities built in the 1950s and 1960s.
The combined facilities — an ambulatory care center, rehabilitation hospital and medical education facility — are expected to cost $424 million. An operating revenue bond is expected cover about $189 million, and the rest would come from private funders and a state appropriation of $50 million specifically for the medical school component.
Thus far, $132 million in private giving has been committed to the project. One of the largest gifts was given contingent on the state match, Buhler said.
Considering two-thirds of Utah physicians were trained at the U. School of Medicine and 82 percent of current medical students are from Utah, it is very much a "state" asset.
The facilities have reached the end of their useful life and need to be updated with structures and amenities that are safer and better suited to the academic, clinical and research needs of students and faculty, Buhler said.
"It's more than aesthetics. It's a life-safety issue," he said.
According to a presentation to the university's board of trustees, a 2013 study found the med school building's seismic issues "are significant enough that the building is unsuitable for continued use as a clinical care and research facility. The deficiencies cited are considered a hazard to occupants and a liability to the university."
The adjoining rehabilitation hospital will have 75 beds. The third structure, the Ambulatory Care Complex, does not require state funding.
Overall, the state's higher education system seeks a 7.5 percent increase in ongoing funding — more than $66 million — to provide a 3 percent performance-based compensation raise, address student growth and keep tuition increases to 2 percent at top-tier institutions.
The regents are also asking for an additional $11.2 million of ongoing funds for the Regents' Scholarship.
The scholarship is awarded to qualifying Utah high school students who prepare for college academically and save for college. The scholarship can be used at any public institution, as well as BYU, LDS Business College and Westminster College.
While legislative leaders are already attempting to manage expectations of state agencies, Buhler said state lawmakers, by virtue of their own higher education opportunities, understand that knowledge opens doors and they have similar aspirations for their children and grandchildren.
"I'm anxious to make our case along with the presidents of our universities and colleges and the regents," Buhler said.