- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 1, 2016

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) - The University of Wyoming will get $100 million for construction of a science complex under a bill that cleared the Legislature on Tuesday.

The Wyoming House voted down an attempt by some lawmakers to divert $85 million of the UW Science Initiative funding to pay for eventual repairs or replacement of the state penitentiary in Rawlins. The Senate quickly voted to concur with the House, and the bill now heads to Gov. Matt Mead.

Senate President Phil Nicholas, R-Laramie, said the legislation approves the funding while directing UW to develop detailed project plans. The Legislature will vote on approving those plans next year, he said.

UW Vice President Chris Boswell said Tuesday it will take a few years to construct the science classrooms and laboratories.

Boswell said the high-tech classrooms will offer students a more engaging, “active learning” experience and says the project also will provide new laboratory space for research into disciplines including scientific imaging.

“It’s a multi-faceted approach to transforming, is a legitimate term, the way we teach the core sciences at UW, and secondly the original intent of the bill going back a few years ago, was to improve and perhaps replace the labs that are associated with the core sciences at UW,” Boswell said.

Some UW labs date from early in the last century while others date from the 1970s, Boswell said.

New classrooms and labs will allow greater collaboration among different disciplines, Boswell said. “It’s a method that’s been employed at places like Stanford very successfully, and the intent is to have more of these disciplines, more of the researchers in these disciplines, interacting with each other.”

Rep. Steve Harshman, R-Casper, is chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, which recommended the funding with its Senate counterparts.

“I think it will be really transformational. I really do,” Harshman said of building out the UW Science Initiative. “I think it will be just another investment in our people and the state of Wyoming. More than anything, it’s going to affect the preparation of teachers who’ll be teaching our kids, the next generation of kids.”

Harshman said the Legislature wouldn’t be funding the project in the face of shrinking energy revenues that are forcing overall state budget cuts if it hadn’t received one-time federal funding.

The Legislature is moving federal money earmarked for restoration of abandoned mine lands to the Wyoming Department of Transportation to address roads affected by mineral development. At the same time, the Legislature is moving existing funds out of the Wyoming Department of Transportation to pay for the UW project and others.

Wyoming was widely criticized a few years ago when it used abandoned mine lands money directly for work on the UW basketball arena. The ensuing uproar may have played a role in Congress stripping most mine-lands funding from the state. The funds were restored only recently.

The House on Tuesday shot down an amendment proposed by Rep. Scott Clem, R-Gillette, who proposed taking $85 million of the UW money against expected future cost of repairs at the Rawlins prison. Corrections Department officials have told lawmakers that structural problems at the 15-year-old prison will cost that much to repair.

“That’s a need,” Clem said of the prison funding. “I would submit to you that the Science Initiative is a want. I think we really need to focus more on our needs, rather than our wants.”

Others spoke against Clem’s proposal, saying that it’s not clear whether the state will decide to repair or replace the prison.

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