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Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Tennessee Board of Regents Chancellor Flora Tydings speaks during a groundbreaking ceremony for the McMinn Higher Education Center on Sept. 27, 2019 in Athens, Tenn.

NASHVILLE — A proposed $21.9 million advanced manufacturing building for Chattanooga State's Tenneessee College of Applied Technology ranks No. 2 on this year's wish list of building projects recommended by state higher education officials.

The proposed 50,000-square foot building is among eight new capital projects totaling $354.9 million pitched Tuesday by Tennessee Higher Education Commission Executive Director Mike Krause during Gov. Bill Lee's public budget hearings.

The governor this week is hearing requests from state agencies and other entities as he readies the fiscal year 2020-2021 budget proposal he will submit to state lawmakers next year. Tuesday was Day 2 of the hearings, which go through Friday.

Public higher education institutions — which include the University of Tennessee system, Tennessee Board of Regents schools (community colleges and TCATs) and six independent universities — are also pledging to hold tuition increases next year from zero to 2% if the governor provides $38 million for outcome formula growth for dozens of institutions.

Krause argued that Tennessee universities and community colleges are doing good work in their mission to move students toward graduation. The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, for example, boosted baccalaureate awards by 4.3%, he said.

Higher education institutions' total ask from the state is $1.6 billion in the new budget that goes into effect next July. The UT system is seeking $536.9 million, while the Board of Regents is asking for $338.5 million. The six independently governing universities want $524.6 million.

With the proposed new TCAT Chattanooga advanced manufacturing building ranked No. 2, the project could get funded depending on how much Lee intends to spend next year on higher education capital projects. A $55 million new engineering building at Tennessee Tech in Cookeville ranks No. 1. Moreover, the Chattanooga project is the only Tennessee Board of Regents project on THEC's eight-project list.

TBR Chancellor Flora Tydings, a former Chattanooga State president, told the Times Free Press that if the new Chattanooga TCAT building gets funded in the budget, it's going to "increase what they're doing in several programs — advanced manufacturing, construction program, plumbing, masonry and carpentry programs."

If approved, the money would also allow retrofitting several areas as programs are moved into the new building. That could enable Chattanooga State to "expand some of their health programs," Tydings added.

As this year's budget hearings began Monday, Lee said he intended to be cautious in terms of new capital construction projects in general government. But asked about higher education on Tuesday, Lee said colleges and universities have "shown a balance of understanding their capital needs, which allows for a greater opportunity for capital projects and maintenance.

"I'm not certain of that balance in the [general] state government and General Services in the facilities that are owned by the state," said Lee, who before his 2018 election ran a family owned construction and building services firm that operates throughout Middle Tennessee.

The governor said, "that's my caution and that's my reason I have said before we allocate dollars to major capital projects we need to have a clearer understanding of what the maintenance and deferred maintenance exposure and liability that we have is as a state."

He said that's why he "drilled" higher education officials specifically on whether they understood "the liability and exposure they have. They have shown that they do have a plan for that. And therefore it makes more sense to look at capital projects."

As a result, Lee said, he would be more willing to sign off on higher education capital requests. "Because that's balanced with that deferred maintenance piece plan they have," he said. "If we have the same assurances in every other group, then we could have that same approach."

Regarding officials' request for the $38 million for outcomes-based formula growth and keeping tuition hikes to no more than 2%, Lee said keeping tuition low is "good for Tennesseans. It's good for our economy. We are a leader in the country in many ways on that." As a result, he added, "I'm pleased where they're proposing to keep increases — at a minimum level."

Still, the governor's not committing yet to providing the $38 million in his budget, given outstanding requests across government.

"We'll look at every one of these numbers. But I'm pleased that they're proposing a small increase in tuition," he said.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow on Twitter @AndySher1.

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