“Construction” budget calls for creativity, patience, and determination

The central purpose of this blog is to demystify the way the state pays for things and sets priorities. One of the most complicated parts of this process is the state capital budget, the budget that pays for the design and construction of state facilities.

Those who seek certainty, logic, or fairness should stop reading now.

The legislature tweaks the capital budget process every two years. After decades of a rugby-style approach to capital budgeting, about six years ago the legislature proposed a more rational and impartial process. Although the process has changed every year since, the process generally links projects to state priorities and then assigned a relatively impartial group to score the projects.  Highest priority projects would be funded first. Simple. Rational. Right?

Complications arise when policymakers interpret the priority list. For example, CWU’s $3-million Science II design proposal scored first in a category called “growth,” intended to address programs that are growing out of their space. The governor’s budget funds the UW’s “House of Knowledge” rather than Science II, even though the CWU project scored significantly higher on the authorized priority list–a phenomenon we will be sure to point out to legislators, who have not yet proposed House and Senate versions of the budget.   

Another interesting feature of the capital budget is that the money the state provides for a project can evaporate before you use it. For example, last fall the state budget office “swept” back into the state capital budget funds dedicated to art for the Hogue project and for the predesign of Science II. 

This year the size of the capital budget is alarmingly small. It’s a function of the size of the operating budget, which, as we all know, has been shrinking. As a result, for higher education projects only about $100 million is available. Keep in mind that a single construction project could easily absorb most of that. Instead, it’s likely that the legislature will consider breaking projects in two–just as they did Science I 12 years ago. Funding only the first phase of several projects will keep construction projects moving forward in more communities.

Over the last decade CWU has had remarkable success in winning state support for state-of-the-art buildings.  CWU’s success has been due to innovative and persistent Facilities staff and experienced Government Relations staff comfortable with a high level of uncertainty. Faculty have played an important role by providing the concrete information about students and programs that “sells” these projects.

On Thursday, Steve Dupont testified before the House Capital Budget Committee (and did a very nice job, I might add), laying out CWU’s priorities and describing their success in the priority-setting process. In two weeks, Steve and Bill Vertrees will meet with legislators and staff to emphasize the value of these projects to the state and to encourage them to adhere to the priority process legislators established for themselves.

They know what they’re doing and they benefit from the experience of our gov relations director, Ann Anderson, a former state senator. The proof is in numerous capital projects which, over the last ten years have included University Center buildings at Edmonds, Yakima,  Des Moines, and Moses Lake. In Ellensburg the Music Building, the Dean remodel, and Hogue addition and renovation. These have helped to make Central’s one of the most attractive campuses in the state.


About Linda Schactler

Linda is the former Director of Communications for the Washington State Senate, and former deputy director of the Washington State Higher Education Coordinating Board. From 2000 through 2010 Linda was the proprietor of Schactler Communications, an Olympia-based public affairs business. She holds a master of arts in English literature from Washington University in St. Louis. Linda can be reached at her Ellensburg office schactler@cwu.edu, 509-963-1384, or on her cell phone, 509-607-4103.
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