Topeka — A proposal to build three research facilities at Kansas' top universities cleared a hurdle Wednesday, but some lawmakers expressed concern about how the projects will be constructed and how the measure will affect funding for higher education.
The House Appropriations Committee, on a voice vote, sent to the full House a bill to issue $110 million in bonds to build a biomedical center at Kansas University, a food safety laboratory at Kansas State University and an aviation facility at Wichita State University.
Most Appropriations Committee members praised the bill, which has been one of the highest-profile pieces of legislation during the session.
"This strengthens our three universities and brings more research here that the state needs to move forward," Rep. Barbara Ballard, D-Lawrence, said in voting for the bill.
Rep. Melvin Neufeld, R-Ingalls, said the increased research activity would help the state out of its "economic tailspin."
But Ballard and others also said they hoped lawmakers would not use their support of the bill as an excuse to later cut funding to higher education because of the tight state budget. Gov. Bill Graves has expressed similar sentiment, urging lawmakers to work on funding issues before taking up the research initiative.
"We know this shouldn't be a substitute for funding higher education needs," Ballard said. "I hope this is not a substitute."
Under budgets moving through the Legislature, Kansas University and other institutions of higher education would face 4 percent budget cuts for the fiscal year starting July 1. The budgets also fail to include $45 million in enhancements promised as part of reform legislation in 1999.
Under the bill, the state would be responsible for paying off $50 million of the bonds, and the universities would pick up the rest of the costs, presumably from increased federal research dollars.
Some committee members also questioned provisions in the bill that would exempt the projects from some state laws dealing with public disclosure and selecting low bidders.
"Why do we have to depart from the established practices. It makes no sense," said Rep. Thomas Klein, D-Wichita.
The bill includes an option that would allow a departure from the state's traditional building process of hiring an architect to design a building, and then seek bids from firms wanting to construct that building.
Under the bill, a corporation would be formed to oversee the project in consultation with the State Building Advisory Commission. That corporation could decide to build the projects by using a construction manager, who would be responsible for nearly all phases of the project, including executing the contracts.
Regents Chairman Clay Blair said the projects can be done quicker and better that way because the construction manager and project designers would work together at every stage of design and construction.
The research bill is House Bill 2690.