Gov. Mark R. Warner has announced a plan to earmark $255 million in new state money for scientific research at Virginia's state colleges and universities over the next two years -- his second major spending presentation in as many days.
Warner's proposed funding would be combined with $300 million from the state's colleges and universities, raised largely by federal and other matching funds, to create a broad spending package of more than a half-billion dollars.
The new state funding will be included in Warner's biannual budget, which he will unveil Dec. 16. The budget must be approved by the General Assembly during the legislative session that begins Jan. 11.
The governor said the new spending is crucial because Virginia lags behind nearby states in research and development spending at its colleges and universities. Both the University of North Carolina and the University of Maryland separately do more research than several Virginia institutions combined, Warner said, and the commonwealth must be able to match its neighbors.
"This is putting a very significant marker down in terms of the long-term economic future of Virginia," Warner (D) said before several hundred college administrators, students and state lawmakers at the Virginia BioTechnology Research Park in Richmond. "What better place to make an investment than in research and development based around our colleges and universities across the commonwealth? There we find tomorrow's products and tomorrow's cures."
The initiative includes money for a new bioscience facility at George Mason University as well as funding for cancer biology research there. It also calls for creating or enhancing several programs at the University of Virginia, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and Virginia Commonwealth University.
Warner, who is following the lead of his gubernatorial predecessors by outlining several big-ticket initiatives in his last budget as governor, said the new spending would be focused on hiring 100 "world-class" researchers and faculty members at the state's institutions, while also building facilities, purchasing modern equipment and increasing money for graduate students. He said that developing a "research and development engine" at Virginia colleges and universities would trigger more economic development around the commonwealth.
"It is absolutely essential, if we are going to continue the economic prosperity we have in Virginia, that we continue to drive and create intellectual capital," Warner said.
The governor's aides said that the state portion of the initiative would be drawn from budget surpluses that reached nearly $550 million as of June 30. Such surpluses are expected to increase to nearly $1 billion by the end of this fiscal year.
In using the state surplus to fund part of the initiative, Warner is likely to ignite a robust discussion in the General Assembly about how excess state funds should be used. Several House Republicans, who will review the governor's spending plan during the session, raised concerns Wednesday about the reliance on precious surplus funds to pay for university research, even as they agreed that the effort is important.
On Tuesday, Warner announced a $460 million plan to build facilities and offer more services for the mentally ill and disabled that would also draw heavily on the budget surplus.
"If transportation is such a concern, how come some of it hasn't been earmarked for that?" asked R. Steven Landes (R-Augusta), chairman of the House Republican Caucus. He added that there would probably be a movement in his chamber to use some of the surplus to eliminate the state's estate tax or to create a tax-free holiday for back-to-school supplies.
"Does that mean that part of the Kaine-Warner strategy is spending the surplus on other priorities and get people committed to them and then say, 'Oh look we don't have any money left so let's look at other tax sources.' There is some concern about that," Landes said.
State colleges and universities spent $700 million on research and development as of 2003, according to statistics released by the governor's office.
University administrators on hand Wednesday said Warner's plan would significantly increase their ability to attract and keep top researchers and augment their existing programs.
"This is the first time the commonwealth has said, 'We're going to invest directly in research,' " GMU President Alan G. Merten said. "Research up to now has been given [support] only if there's anything left."