December 2, 2005
Arkansas State University - Jonesboro
This First Friday report is about the Higher Education Bond election Tuesday, December 13, and the importance of this issue for Arkansas State University. Governor Huckabee has set this date for voters to cast ballots on two separate proposals, one dealing with the long term financing of the state’s highway system and the other dealing with building projects on public higher education campuses in Arkansas. Although both issues will be included on the same ballot, they are not related nor linked; a voter may vote for one and against the other. This First Friday report will not address the highway proposal, although the university has an interest in the outcome of the measure for the benefit of students who use the highway system to drive to ASU campuses.
The Higher Education Bond is a concept that uses an existing stream of $24 million in the state budget to invest $250 million in bonds. From the proceeds, $100 million would be used to pay off an existing obligation of the state, the College Savings Bond program. The remaining $150 million would be allocated to public higher education entities, with $50 million going to 2-year institutional purposes, and $100 million going to 4-year institutional purposes. A comprehensive list of these distributions and projects is included as an attachment to this report, as well as the Arkansas Higher Education Coordinating Board resolution. As a voter, you can see what you are being asked to support. When the $250 million from the Higher Education Bond is spent the program will end. At that time, the $24 million annual payment will cease to be directed to this bonded debt.
It is important for all of us to realize that the money now being used for the existing College Savings Bond payment is currently in the state’s budget. The new bond program will continue to use that same revenue stream, but for a longer period of time than was first planned. The new bond program will not result in new taxes for any citizen, or call for a redirection of money in any other state budget.
It also is important to understand that this existing and proposed yearly amount of $24 million in bond payments may not be used to pay for the costs of our operations, or salaries, or any other existing need. This is money for “bricks and mortar” only.
Even considering the restriction for bricks and mortar purposes, the Higher Education Bond election does have specific benefits for the ASU campuses, as each ASU location is included for some distribution of funds from the bond sales. At Jonesboro, some $7,601,290 will be directed to the construction of a new classroom building to replace the functions now contained within Wilson Hall. This does not mean that Wilson Hall will be torn down. In fact, there are other possible uses for this grand old building, so centrally located in the heart of the campus. But anyone who now uses Wilson Hall will acknowledge that the existing facility is “tired,” it is inefficient for teaching and advising, and it is inappropriate for the important work undertaken by the students who go there to learn.
A new classroom building has been planned to be built just to the east of Wilson Hall, at the north end of the pedestrian mall on ground now occupied by the post office. When postal functions are relocated to the Reng Student Services Building next year, the existing post office will be razed to create a construction site for the new classroom building. This facility will house the departments, programs, faculty, academic support staff, and equipment now located in Wilson Hall, and will create new learning spaces for our students.
While $7.6 million is a lot of money, a total of $15-16 million will be needed for the new building. The Department of Higher Education, in conjunction with ASU and the Arkansas General Assembly, will address these additional financial needs outside the currently proposed bond distributions.
In addition to the Wilson Hall replacement funding, the Higher Education Bond also will provide $1,398,710 to ASU-Jonesboro to pay for our inclusion in the statewide project known as the E-Corridor. This will be a sophisticated system of linkages to a fiber optic network that will join the research universities across the United States through an Ethernet network. An easy way to describe the E-Corridor is that it will be like a dedicated internet system just for research, clinical, and higher education purposes. This project is more formally known as the National LambdaRail (NLR). If you have interest in the details of the NLR, several websites exist that describe the project more thoroughly, such aswww.nlr.net, www.ecorridors.arkansas.gov, and www.internet2.edu. It is crucial for ASU to be present among universities linked through NLR. In Arkansas, our research partners at Fayetteville and Little Rock will benefit from our inclusion, and our own research efforts will require that our faculty be linked to colleagues across the nation.
Money from the Higher Education Bond will be distributed to each of the four-year university campuses for the NLR connection, but ASU-Jonesboro will receive the largest allocation because we are somewhat geographically removed from the fiber optic path that enters the state on the Oklahoma border and exits on the Louisiana border.
The Higher Education Bond will fund $150,000,000 in construction and technology needs for the 39 entities that make up the state system of higher education. ASU-Jonesboro will receive $9 million of these distributions for the projects identified above. Apart from the needs for the projects, why is it important that ASU is included in this distribution list? The Legislature, which provides for most education and general construction projects (excluding those paid for by student fees or rents, such as our new apartment project), has not had funding available in recent sessions to pay for new academic buildings at state universities. In the coming years, most available construction money will have to be spent on public school needs and mandates. So this is our best and perhaps only chance to obtain state money for our needed buildings within the foreseeable future. If it were not for the bonds, it would be necessary to pay for new academic buildings through tuition assessments, which would add to the financial burden now carried by students and their families.
We have seen the benefit of distributions from the earlier College Savings Bond initiative from the 1980’s and 1990’s. The ASU Library and the Fowler Center used College Savings Bond funds in their construction budgets. Few students of the many who now use those facilities would question the value of those investments, and the citizens who first voted to support the bonds also enjoy the buildings that were developed across the state. But now, we have an opportunity to extend the bonds for construction of new facilities that will benefit the citizens of the future. These investments will be good for the students of the second century of ASU’s operation. These improvements, which are greatly needed, will come without additional expense to any of us.
What will happen if the Higher Education Bond election is not approved by the voters? The existing $24 million revenue stream that is a part of the state budget will continue to be used to pay off the College Savings Bonds. When that is done in several years, there will be no authorization for the state to direct this money to higher education. Experience tells us that the state would likely not rebate to taxpayers the portion of their annual tax payment used for the bonds. Even if this happened, it would only amount to pocket change each year. It is more likely that the state would direct the $24 million to other purposes, such as needs for the prisons, highways, schools, or public services. In an era of declining state support for higher education, it is questionable that any of this money would necessarily be directed to higher education.
This Higher Education Bond may very well be the best way for ASU to receive a benefit that would otherwise be unavailable, or likely to be appropriated.
If you are persuaded to see that this bond is passed, it is important that you vote FOR the Higher Education Bond. You may vote early before December 13 on any workday in Room 202, in the County Clerk’s office in the Craighead County Courthouse, 511 South Main, Jonesboro. For information about early voting, please call 933-4520. On voting day, December 13, you may vote at announced polling locations throughout the county. Local newspapers will announce these locations. By voting FOR the Higher Education Bond, members of the local community and the ASU faculty, staff, and students will be able to see that important projects are realized here, where we will see benefit, and that higher education throughout the state will be better served by support of the public.
Thank you for reading First Friday. If you have comments about this material or any other aspect of Arkansas State University, please contact me at email@example.com.