Op-Ed: Burdensome legislation would stall construction at University of California

On July 7, 2021, CalMatters published this op-ed from Dick Ackerman and Mel Levine, co-chairs of the California Coalition for Public Higher Education, titled, “Burdensome legislation would stall construction at University of California“:

Education, infrastructure and economic stimulus are near the top of our nation’s agenda now. But here in California, the Legislature is considering a bill that would discourage progress on all three fronts.

Senate Bill 132 would stop the University of California from moving ahead with badly needed capital improvement projects unless the university submits to a costly and cumbersome annual certification process sought by one public employee union.

There’s a lot at stake.

California’s renowned UC system is an economic powerhouse widely credited for spurring progress, innovation and opportunity.

Faced with the need to support growing enrollment, additional student housing, earthquake safety improvements, deferred maintenance, health care and much more, UC is planning to make billions of dollars in capital improvements — all of which will help boost California’s economy as it recovers from the pandemic recession. At UC medical centers alone — the institutions responsible for many of our state’s medical advances — the estimated cost for capital projects over the next 10 years is $13.7 billion.

Californians throughout the state would benefit from these improvements, as well as from the high-paying jobs created in the construction and materials industries. Yet the bill’s proponents seem willing to put these benefits on hold — or at least delay them substantially — to protect the special interests of a few.

Their bill would withhold funds for all construction and capital improvements each year until a lengthy audit can certify that no contracted support service labor is – or ever was – employed across most UC capital projects, with no exceptions, even for emergencies or other unexpected circumstances.

Such legislation should never have made it out of committee. But it is a budget “trailer bill,” which is legislation drafted after the state budget’s approval without any meaningful public notice or debate.

This legislation is simply unnecessary. Senate Bill 820, which was signed into law just last year, requires the university to certify each year that UC has not contracted out any portion of work that is traditionally performed by people represented by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. The law applies to certain university facilities built after 2017.

Instead of giving SB 820 a chance to work, proponents of SB 132 want to impose a brand-new set of requirements. They would expand certification requirements to include all capital expenditures, even those secured without state support, such as grants, private gifts and campus and hospital funds.

UC would have to provide a complete certification of direct employment for all service work as a condition of being allowed to encumber funds for any of the university’s new or ongoing capital projects. That means critical seismic or life safety improvements and student housing projects could be halted every year for months at a time while awaiting the audit.

UC also would have to provide a look-back — or retrospective certification — of direct employment since the year in which each UC site benefited from an allocation of public funds. This would require an independent audit and certification that includes the names, hours worked and start and end dates for each contract worker.

The audit would tie up UC projects in red tape and delay much-needed construction projects, leading to increased costs, more deferred maintenance and less earthquake safety on campuses.

The trailer bill singles out UC. That’s unfair — and ironic — because the UC system is the state’s third largest employer, directly employing about 229,000 full- and part-time faculty and staff. As we emerge from the pandemic, UC’s role in our economic recovery continues to be vital: UC-related spending and activities support more than 529,000 jobs. That’s 2% of California’s total jobs, or 1 in 45 jobs in the state.

No wonder California’s building trade unions have joined UC and the California Coalition for Public Higher Education in opposing SB 132. The bill would discourage economic activity, postpone needed improvements and compromise the university’s ability to train and prepare students. We urge the Legislature to reject it.