COLUMBIA — Clemson University is seeking autonomy from state government’s multi-layered approval process for certain construction projects.
School officials said the regulatory relief bill approved by the Senate on Thursday would bypass months of unnecessary delays and help attract funding from private sources, ultimately saving taxpayers money. The measure, approved 37-4, creates a so-called enterprise division within the university to oversee construction projects related to economic development and athletics.
Senate Majority Leader Harvey Peeler, the main sponsor, said Friday the bill strikes a good balance between accountability and efficiency.
“Sometimes what they do, they need to do quickly. Government is a cumbersome beast sometimes,” said Peeler, R-Gaffney, a Clemson graduate.
Clemson President Jim Barker said the current five-step approval process involving two agency boards and a legislative review committee adds at least six months to any construction project, while 12 months is the norm and 18 months is not unusual.
With state support shrinking, Clemson needs to generate more money through research, private-sector partnerships and private donors, said Barker, who last month announced plans to step down as president after 14 years and become a professor.
“We need to be more responsive to the needs of industry, and that means we have to move at their pace,” Barker recently told a Senate subcommittee. “At its very core, the enterprise act is about reducing the cost of government and being more responsive to opportunities. In today’s world, that’s just good business.”
Barker noted it’s not a new concept. The Legislature allowed similar flexibility to develop Clemson’s International Center on Automotive Research, located on 250 acres in Greenville.
Barker said Clemson modeled its request after the Medical University of South Carolina’s hospital authority, which the Legislature approved more than a decade ago. A key difference is Clemson’s bill creates an oversight division within the school, rather than a separate entity, subject to state laws on public records and competitive bidding, he said.
As approved by the Senate, the bill requires Clemson to annually provide the governor and Legislature progress reports on construction, as well as property bought, leased or sold. Borrowing for capital projects still must go through a state approval process.
Sen. Kevin Bryant, among the four who voted “no,” said he remains concerned about a potential lack of accountability. He said he’s encouraged that Clemson plans to post all transactions on its spending transparency website.
“I just hope we don’t get away from that,” said Bryant, R-Anderson.
A spokesman for Gov. Nikki Haley, a Clemson graduate, did not address whether she would sign or veto the bill, but said her focus is on revamping how South Carolina’s public colleges are funded. She’s advocated a performance-based funding formula for higher education since taking office, but the idea’s made little headway.
“She is committed to providing regulatory relief for the entire higher education system before focusing on any individual institution’s additional priorities,” said spokesman Rob Godfrey.
The University of South Carolina isn’t currently seeking the authority, though it supports the bill’s objective of regulatory reform, said USC spokesman Wes Hickman. USC is instead focusing its efforts on a $10 million budget request for two programs aimed at making college more affordable and accessible.