ABOR President: If university bonding plan fails, lawsuit is an option

ABOR President: If university bonding plan fails, lawsuit is an option

ASU Arizona State University campus 620

Lawmakers could face a lawsuit from the universities if the proposal to permit them to issue bonds of up to $1 billion falls flat, the head of the Arizona Board of Regents hinted.

ABOR President Eileen Klein told the Arizona Capitol Times that instead of filing a lawsuit, the universities have chosen to “partner” with the state, a move that culminated in the bonding plan.

But if the plan fails to get the votes in the Legislature, the universities could go to court, she said.

Eileen Klein
Eileen Klein

“We’d like there to be a time at the Legislature where people are rewarded for partnerships. We don’t want to go the route of litigation,” she said. “We hope that they’ll choose to partner with their universities and actually fund their universities the way the (Arizona) Constitution requires, so that we don’t have to waste time and money in court.”

In a recent blog post, Klein wrote that, over the past 20 years, the state has accumulated a funding backlog of nearly $700 million in university capital repairs and improvements.

The threat of a lawsuit from the universities comes at a time when Republican leaders are struggling to corral the votes for a $9.8 billion spending plan, which includes Gov. Doug Ducey’s pitch to borrow up to $1 billion that the universities can use to construct new buildings and maintain existing ones.

And just this week, a coalition of school districts and K-12 education groups sued to force the state to provide more money for capital expenses, arguing lawmakers have ignored past Arizona Supreme Court decisions outlining the state’s financial obligations to schools.

Klein made similar remarks during hearings in the House Appropriations Committee yesterday.

Vince Leach
Vince Leach

Rep. Vince Leach, R-Tucson, said her comments didn’t even really register with him, and he’s not stressing over the possibility that the universities might someday bring a lawsuit over capital funding.

“I didn’t see anything there. I really didn’t. I hope she doesn’t prove me wrong,” he said.

Leach noted that Klein spent a long time testifying in committee, and the veiled threat may have been inadvertent.

“Maybe we should have here what they have in Congress: ‘Mr. Chairman, Mr. Speaker, I’d like the ability to revise my comments,” he said.

Republican Rep. Jeff Weninger of Chandler said he had “learned a long time ago that you don’t worry until they actually sue.”

In an interview, Klein said ABOR will regroup and “consider all options” if the bonding plan fails.

“Year after year, the universities have really been sidelined in terms of the budget. They’ve taken massive cuts, and at some point, we have to have an opportunity to work with the state so that we can get the investment… (for) not just that we need, but that we are owed by law,” Klein said. She added that the universities are focused on getting the votes for the bonding plan, saying they’re “very close.”

Ducey said today he’s not focusing on any potential university lawsuit and is instead working on getting a budget passed. “There’s a lot of things said in the light and heat of budget negotiation,” Ducey said.

Under the budget deal reached by Ducey and Republican legislators, the universities will be tasked with providing tuition-free education for aspiring teachers in the form of a teachers’ academy.

Klein said the universities are hopeful the mandate would be funded, but maintained that the teacher academy will begin, regardless of whether money is allocated for it.

“Clearly, it’s a disappointment not to have additional funding. We will have to look at how big of a group we can start in the academy in year one,” she said.

The budget deal also includes $15 million for universities to support Arizona resident students, and Klein said while those dollars will be helpful, they are needed to defray the costs for all students, not just future teachers.

Without money from the bonding plan, the universities will come back to the Legislature next year to press the case for more funding to grow the teacher academy in a sustainable, successful way, she said.

“We can’t ask other students and other families to take on the cost of educating teachers. We need the Legislature’s support,” she said.