By COLIN M. STEWART
Tribune-Herald staff writer
Campus administrators are keeping their fingers crossed after the Legislature dropped from a working version of the state budget a request for $38 million to fund a new pharmacy school building at the University of Hawaii at Hilo.
Representatives in the state House on Wednesday passed on their version of Hawaii’s $23.3 billion budget for fiscal years 2013-2015 and forwarded it on to the Senate, minus a line item that UH-Hilo and Big Island delegates have been requesting for years.
Administrators at UH-Hilo have said that failure to fund a facility for the fledgling college will result in the institution losing its accreditation. But some legislators say that, in light of slowly rebounding economy, they are concerned about spending a large chunk of money that would end up benefiting a relatively small group of students — the college currently has less than 400 enrolled. Instead, they are looking at directing more money toward the repair and upkeep of current University of Hawaii facilities.
“We have a whole lot of funding requests before us, and we have a general concern,” said state Sen. David Ige, D-Pearl City, chairman of the Senate Committee on Ways and Means. “They (the UH system) keep insisting that we need to fund repairs and maintenance with general obligation bonds, and in addition they keep requesting funding for new buildings. … We have been encouraging the university system to come up with a more systemic plan for funding maintenance. … We have to put their requests against all the other requests.”
Ige cautioned that the removal of the capital improvement request from the budget does not mean a final decision has been made, saying that the Senate could reintroduce the item.
“I’ve been in contact with legislators, including (state Sen. Gil) Kahele (D-Hilo) virtually every day, talking about different things,” he said. “We’re trying to work through the requirements. Clearly, he is concerned about the impact on (the school’s) accreditation.”
Kahele said Monday that he understands the concerns that led House members to drop the pharmacy school from their budget, but he isn’t giving up on changing their minds.
“The concerns over in the House are valid ones. We’ve got $460 million in maintenance and repairs backlogged that we have to address,” he said. “But, we’re still trying to find a way to go forward with this.”
Kahele said he has been working hard to educate other legislators on the importance of the College of Pharmacy, not just to the Big Island, but to the entire university system, the state, and even the world.
“I was just visiting one of their facilities yesterday in Panaewa, and I spoke with some of their post-doctoral candidates about the research they were doing there. I was just flabbergasted about the things they’re working on,” he said. “… They may even have a cure for breast cancer one day.”
He added that adding the item back onto the budget might be a difficult task, but not an impossible one.
“My son texted me early Sunday morning … and he said, ‘Well, it looks like the College of Pharmacy building is dead.’ And I texted back to him ‘Why? Have you heard the fat lady sing?’ It ain’t over ‘til it’s over, and I’ve seen things around here that came back to life. It’s time to go fishin’.”
UH-Hilo University Relations Director Jerry Chang said Monday that while he was concerned about the exclusion of the request, he was not yet ready to begin focusing on contingency plans.
“We’re hopeful the Senate will put it back in,” he said. “The House is usually very conservative … They were $600 million below the governor’s request.”
He added that legislators could opt to partially fund the building request, or find alternative sources of funding.
“There may be a way. We haven’t figured that way out yet,” Chang said. “But as the session moves along, hopefully we’ll get some kind of compromise.”
Administrators were heartened when, before the start of the legislative session, Gov. Neil Abercrombie and the University of Hawaii Board of Regents identified the Hilo campus project as their top priority for UH capital improvement. Abercrombie later visited one of the College of Pharmacy’s temporary classrooms in Hilo and pledged to lend his support to securing funding for the new building.
At that meeting, Dean John Pezzuto explained to the governor that in April the Accreditation Council for Pharmacy Education would visit the Daniel K. Inouye College of Pharmacy and review the school’s progress in meeting accreditation standards. At or near the top of the list will be whether the program has obtained a permanent facility, he said.
“There is no college on Earth that doesn’t have a building,” Pezzuto said in February. “… when they come in April, they’ll be saying ‘This is what you told us, this is what we believed.’ Hopefully, we’ll be able to say ‘Yes, we are building it (a permanent building).”
On Monday, Pezzuto said that he will continue to lobby for the building funds, despite being disappointed that the House dropped the item.
“I have great optimism, just based on logic,” he said. “Having already invested $5.5 million in the planning and design of the building, it would be hard to come to grips with the notion that people wouldn’t see the merit in (funding the building).”
He added that he will be in Honolulu on Wednesday and Thursday to appeal to legislators.
“I’m remaining hopeful that they’ll be able to see the merit of what we’re doing,” he said.
Email Colin M. Stewart at email@example.com.