Among the higher education issues the General Assembly will deal with in the coming weeks is one that has been around for the two previous legislative sessions: Giving individual state universities the ability to issue bonds for campus construction projects without first having to get state approval.
Twice legislation permitting the bonding power has passed the House of Representatives, but failed each time to come up for a vote in the Senate.
While it is understandable that some members of the General Assembly are reluctant to cede to universities such a powerful authority, we believe it is time to give the universities a chance to demonstrate they can exercise that authority responsibly and with fiscal prudence.
That is especially true if the universities are to meet the high expectations of them over the next 15 years.
The University of Kentucky, for example, under a challenge to become a top-ranked research institution nationally, is in dire need of a new $120 million building for the nationally-rated College of Pharmacy. But the General Assembly appropriated only $40 million of the amount needed in the last legislative session and must return this year in hopes of getting the remaining $80 million.
If UK had the ability to issue bonds for the pharmacy building and the funds available to meet the debt payment on those bonds, the new building might already be nearing completion.
If legislators are reluctant to give individual universities ultimate bonding authority, they can require that they justify their capital construction plans to the Council on Post-Secondary Education first. That ought to be sufficient to prevent a wholesale building binge, especially among the regional universities.
And what the General Assembly giveth, the General Assembly can taketh away if the universities abuse the bonding authority.
If Kentucky is to have a system of higher education that can stand on its own nationally, the General Assembly must give the universities the tools necessary to reach that lofty goal. The ability to identify campus building needs and to finance those needs without having to come to Frankfort every two years is a critical tool that legislators must be prepared to grant the universities during this legislative session.