Topeka — State universities were faced with dilapidated classrooms, a backlog of repair projects and buildings that didn't meet fire codes or federal Americans with Disabilities Act requirements.
The year was 1996, and legislators responded by approving a much-ballyhooed "Crumbling Classrooms" initiative.
That initiative is back on legislators' minds this year, as they again consider proposals to help the universities deal with aging and deteriorating buildings. Some wonder why the universities' problems seem to have grown over the past decade, while others - and Gov. Kathleen Sebelius - believe the older initiative actually made the problems worse because of how it was financed.
"Frankly if you look at it, that proposal didn't make a lot of sense," Sebelius said Wednesday during an interview. "We kind of took a step forward and a big step back."
Sebelius is dealing with that perceived backward step by proposing a package to provide $575 million in aid to state universities over six years. Her plan includes issuing $300 million in bonds and raising Kansas Turnpike tolls to pay them off.
She also has proposed $200 million in low-interest state loans to the universities, and setting aside $75 million in existing state dollars over five years for maintenance expenses. The House already has approved that last idea.
But as legislators mull over proposals for tackling the backlog of repair projects, the ghost of "Crumbling Classrooms" haunts the discussions. Under that program, the state issued bonds to raise nearly $164 million for various projects on the six state universities' campuses.
To back the bonds, the Legislature set aside $15 million a year - from a fund used to pay for the maintenance of university buildings. Essentially, the Legislature gave the regents an advance on future maintenance dollars, rather than providing new dollars.
"What happened did not make sense - to borrow money and make them pay it out of their own repair money," said House Speaker Melvin Neufeld, R-Ingalls, who opposed the idea at the time. "That wasn't a solution."
Reggie Robinson, the state Board of Regents' chief executive officer, said, "It actually helped to create the problem we have right now."
Still, legislators ask why the regents haven't been able to keep up with building maintenance, while others question whether the state Board of Regents was diligent enough in its oversight.
Neufeld suggested that much of the "Crumbling Classroom" dollars weren't spent as he and other lawmakers intended - to repair infrastructure.
"The Board of Regents has kind of been AWOL on oversight," Neufeld said.
But a legislative audit in 2005 concluded that the regents revised their "Crumbling Classrooms" spending plans because legislators had approved a smaller initiative than the board had sought. And, it noted, individual projects were reviewed by the Legislature's Joint Committee on State Building Construction.
The audit said nearly $93 million from the 1996 initiative was spent on repairs or major remodeling, while more than $32 million went to bringing buildings into compliance with the ADA or fire codes.
"It really can't have been conceived as something that - quote - took care of the maintenance problem," Robinson said. "I don't want to denigrate 'Crumbling Classrooms' - it was important and valuable - but everybody needs to be clear about what it did."
However, some legislators grumble because more than $31 million of the "Crumbling Classrooms" funds financed new construction.
Rep. Steve Huebert, R-Valley Center, said he's also frustrated that the regents aren't discussing whether any buildings can be sold or torn down.
"You have older buildings that are too costly to maintain and need to be retired," he said. "I've heard for years that we're going to look at that issue, but I never see anything come across the table."