Blue Sky Amid the Gloom.

In the midst of a gloomy state budget, two former governors are offering "a piece of blue sky," a $4.7 billion higher education construction plan that could create more than 30,000 jobs, meet the space needs of 34,000 more students-and not raise state taxes.

Last December former Gov. Dan Evans and former Gov. Booth Gardner suggested raising the state's statutory debt limit from 7 percent to 7.9 percent, using the extra bond revenue to finance $1.7 billion in new construction. Existing debt capacity would fund $3 billion in renovations at campuses across the state.

UW projects would include a new Life Sciences Building in Seattle, financing the next phases of construction at UW Tacoma and UW Bothell, and matching funds for major instructional and research facilities.

"The largest graduating class of high school students in our history will be in 2008. What we're trying to do is get ahead of the curve," explains Evans, who is currently a UW regent.

"The economy of our state is directly tied to the quality of our institutions of higher education," says Gardner. "This is something that should get done."

The economy of our state is directly tied to the quality of our institutions of higher education,

Debt service would cost $6 million in 2003-05 and $52 million in 2005-07, proponents say, but with historically low interest rates, this is an advantageous time to borrow. The new debt limit of 7.9 percent is still below the constitutional limit of 9 percent.

The plan would generate more than $77 million in sales tax revenue over 10 years and create about 30,000 jobs, the former governors point out.

While legislators have been receptive, there are some reservations. Debt payments will take over more of the state budget as the decade progresses. "Simply raising the debt limit is not a way to solve our problems," State Sen. Joe Zarelli told the press in reaction to the plan. "And we need to be honest about the implications of this plan on the operating budget."

But UW Government Relations Director, Dick Thompson, says the money would bring more capacity to higher education at a critical time, and also have an economic impact. "This construction project should help turn our economy around," he says.-Tom Griffin

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