During a speech focused on the importance of having an educated workforce, Republican Gov. Bill Haslam announced Monday the proposed $31 billion budget for the upcoming fiscal year includes funding for construction of the new Science Building at Middle Tennessee State University.
“For the last few years, we have not been funding higher education’s capital plans to meet the growth of student demand,” Haslam said, during his State of the State address at Legislative Plaza in Nashville. “This budget will finally provide the state’s funding for the long overdue Science Building at MTSU.”
The budget proposal also includes a 2.5 percent pay raise for state employees, a 0.5 percent decrease of the sales tax on groceries, and sets aside $50 million for the Rainy Day Fund, bringing the balance to $356 million for critical services during times of emergency.
“This budget reflects the economic realities,” he said. “It includes strategic investments in our priorities, savings for the future, and reductions, sometimes painful, to balance the budget.”
Although other states have cut education funding since the recession, Haslam said Tennessee should not continue down a similar path.
“Higher education must be another priority for the state of Tennessee,” he said.
Following the announcement, university officials applauded Haslam’s decision to allot $126.7 million for the project.
“We are grateful to (him) for recognizing the importance of the Science Building project and including funding for its construction in this year’s budget proposal,” MTSU President Sidney McPhee said in a press release.
For more than 10 years, the university has sought funding that would pay for constructing a new stand-alone building, which would provide students with state-of-the-art equipment, research laboratories and collaborative learning spaces.
Science classes are currently housed in the Wiser-Patten Science Hall and Davis Science Building, both of which are more than 40 years old and in need of updates and repairs.
“As home to the state’s largest undergraduate student population, the Science Building is critical to our continuing efforts to provide Tennessee with graduates ready for the 21st century workforce,” McPhee said.
Although the Science Building has consistently remained the top priority on the Tennessee Higher Education Commission’s capital outlay list, the issue has remained mired in politics, often being cut from the state’s budget during last minute negotiations among legislators in the General Assembly.
However, this is the first time in recent years that higher education funding has not been reduced in a governor’s proposed budget.
“For most of the last two decades, higher education has received less funding for their operating budget,” Haslam said. “That changes this year.”
In an effort to control out-of-pocket costs for students, Haslam said the proposed budget also increases the amount of money available for need-based scholarships.
“We simply have to keep tuition increases in Tennessee to a minimum, so that we can encourage more access to more students,” he said, adding that increasing enrollment, as well as graduation rates, would help ensure continued economic growth.
It is unacceptable that employers hire outside of the state because prospective employees from Tennessee do not have the necessary math and science skills, he said.
“When 21 percent of our population has a degree, compared with a national average of 30 percent, and (more than) half of the new jobs being created in the next decade will require degrees,” he said, “encouraging more Tennesseans to aspire to a higher education is one of our key roles as leaders of the state.”