Payson’S Prospects Brighten As ‘Radical’ University Bill Fades

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A bill to radically change higher education financing that posed a threat to a college campus in Payson has died.

Senate President Pro Tem Sylvia Allen, who represents Rim Country, said the bill’s author had agreed to let SB 1115 die in the rules committee. The bill would have eliminated the Arizona Board of Regents, set up four independent university governing boards and shifted to a student voucher system.

“Obviously that bill was not ready to move through the session. It needed a lot of work,” said Sen. Allen, who said she voted for the bill in the committee to support the Appropriations Committee chairman.

Payson Mayor Kenny Evans spent most of the last week meeting with lawmakers trying to convince them to shelve the measure, concerned it would make it impossible for Arizona State University to build a campus in Payson. “This was such a radical departure,” said Evans, “I don’t think anyone can reasonably predict what the outcome will be.”

SB 1115 had posed a potentially lethal threat to the nearly finished negotiations between Payson and Arizona State University to build a high-tech, 6,000-student campus here. The Senate proposal would effectively eliminate state support for university capital funding and require the four separate state universities created by the bill to get legislative approval for many things the Board of Regents can now approve.

Backers of the bill said it would spur competition between the public universities that provide most of the college degrees in the state, giving each university more flexibility and students more clout, since most state funding would go into vouchers controlled by the students.

Opponents said the change would result in chaos, duplication of facilities and the possible breakdown of the whole system, especially when combined with deep cuts in state support in the past two years that have led to a doubling of tuition.

Evans said the bill offered the wrong solution to a serious problem. “There will continue to be a need for a university education in this state — and the cost has to be mitigated in some way. They’re talking now about going to $20,000 a year in tuition. At that point, you’re up to the likes of Stanford or Harvard.”

The two-year struggle to strike a deal between Payson and ASU represented another approach, developing a public-private partnership to build the high-tech campus using low-cost loans, donations and investments. The project would include a convention hotel, chip manufacturing plant, research park, solar arrays, dorms and other related businesses. Money generated by those businesses would make it possible to keep the cost of the campus low enough to charge less than half the tuition as ASU’s Tempe campus.

Evans this week sounded distinctly more optimistic SB 1115 will not derail the project. Before SB 1115 emerged in the form of a strike-all bill that avoided even the normal legislative hearings, ASU officials said all they had to do was complete a final marketing study before deciding whether to proceed with the Payson project.

As the threat of SB 1115 recedes, Payson officials are more optimistic that Payson and ASU could sign a memorandum of understanding in the next month, which would allow construction to start this summer.

That could lead to the opening of the first 500- to 1,000-student phase of the campus in the fall of 2013 or 2014.

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