CHEYENNE — The Wyoming Senate voted Tuesday to take $30 million proposed for one-time highway projects and put it toward renovating and expanding the University of Wyoming performing arts and engineering buildings.
Supporters said the money is needed for UW’s performing arts program to avoid losing accreditation and to renovate one of the school’s oldest buildings for engineering.
Opponents said the Wyoming Department of Transportation needs every cent it can get just to maintain the state’s vital highway system.
State Sen. Phil Nicholas, the Laramie Republican who sponsored the amendment to switch over the money, said AML funding shouldn’t be used as a short-term solution to fund highways while lawmakers continue debating a long-term funding source.
Instead, he said, AML funds should be used by the state to diversify its economy. With 64 percent of state revenues coming from minerals, he said, one way the state can achieve that goal is to ensure the school of engineering is in “tip-top shape.”
“All we’re doing is Band-Aiding [highways] for two years, and then we’re losing some enormously important opportunities,” Nicholas said.
The change would give $14.2 million to UW to renovate and expand its 43-year-old performing arts building, which university spokesman Chad Baldwin said is inadequate to handle the school’s 140 music majors. The project is first on UW’s construction priority list, he said.
The National Association of Schools of Music, which accredits college music programs, has said unless UW starts on a plan to improve the facility by 2014, it may revoke the program’s accreditation, Baldwin said. That would be a severe blow to the music program’s prestige, he said, and it would hurt recruitment of students and faculty.
The remainder of the money, $15.8 million, would be held in an account until UW can start renovating and expanding the engineering building, much of which dates to 1927.
Proponents of the move said they would try and put $30 million into highways next year if the bill stays in its current form.
But state Sen. Stan Cooper, R-Kemmerer, said the $30 million is “desperately needed” now to maintain Wyoming’s crumbling highways.
“I’d hate to go back home and have to tell my constituents, ‘By the way, I gave up $30 million worth of safety improvements for our highways so that we could build another building at the University of Wyoming,’” Cooper said.
The amendment passed on a voice vote. The changes must now clear two additional Senate votes before heading back to the House.
Gov. Matt Mead had proposed giving $50 million in AML funds to highways in his budget request; lawmakers whittled that to $30 million.
Mead spokesman Renny MacKay said in an email that Tuesday’s vote “reinforces the need to examine long-term solutions” for highway funding.