Senate Bill Grants New Purchasing Powers to Clemson University

April 3, 2013

Investigative Reports

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Clemson UniversityClemson University would gain sweeping powers to buy property – with less oversight – under a Senate bill that would create an “enterprise” division within the school.

The “Clemson University Enterprise Act” (S. 535), sponsored by Sen. Harvey Peeler, R-Cherokee and the Senate majority leader, would allow the newly created division to bypass outside review of proposed property purchases and leases. It also would exempt the division from the state procurement code, and would give the division bonding authority.

The bill, which has 16 co-sponsors, was filed before legislators went on a two-week furlough, which ends this week.

How much taxpayers eventually would be on the hook for giving increased purchasing authority to Clemson is unknown, but in-state, full-time undergraduate students have seen their tuition rise a collective 19.5 percent since 2008-09 while the university has been on a building boom.

In an interview Monday with The Nerve, Peeler, who wants a hearing on his bill next week, said the same purchasing and leasing powers could be extended to the University of South Carolina and expanded at the Medical University of South Carolina.

“I really think that the three research universities would ask for the same thing,” said Peeler, a member of the Senate Education Committee. “I would support that.”

Lawmakers exempted MUSC from the state procurement code in 2000, as long as MUSC maintained a procurement code similar to the state’s. Peeler’s bill would allow Clemson’s board of trustees to develop its own procurement policy for the proposed enterprise division, subject to review by the S.C. Budget and Control Board (BCB).

Going forward, the BCB, made up of the governor, state comptroller general, treasurer and chairmen of the House Ways and Means and Senate Finance committees, would have no say over Clemson’s property purchases or leases, as it does now. The S.C. Commission on Higher Education also would be cut out of the review process for the purchase of any property that is not contiguous to Clemson’s campus.

Clemson University trustees and an independent auditor would have to produce an annual report on the enterprise division for the governor and the two legislative budget-writing committee chairmen, though that appears to be the only level of accountability under the bill.

Contacted by The Nerve, Clemson spokeswoman Cathy Sams attempted to alleviate concerns about the bill.

“It’s very similar to how counties and cities deal with properties related to economic development,” she said, explaining that local government officials typically maintain confidentiality on economic development agreements until the public body votes on the project.

“Transparency is not diminished,” Sams said about Peeler’s bill.

Ironically, Peeler’s bill was introduced a week before the Boston-based United States Public Interest Research Group (U.S. PIRG) released a national report that gave South Carolina a failing grade on transparency involving economic development incentives, as  The Nerve reported Tuesday.

In a blog post Monday, Clemson University President James Barker endorsed Peeler’s bill, identifying three areas that could fall under the proposed enterprise division: athletics, student housing and the International Center for Automotive Research (ICAR), Clemson’s automotive research facility in Greenville.

“Being able to respond more quickly to private-sector partnerships will support our economic development initiatives and, in turn, make South Carolina more competitive,” Barker wrote. “Streamlined personnel and procurement processes can make us more successful in competing for research contracts which will make our state more attractive to private industry.”

Clemson has been on a building boom in recent years, which Sams said will continue. Much of the recent construction has focused on properties outside the campus.

Besides ICAR, for example, there is the Restoration Institute in North Charleston, which is involved with the development of wind turbines for the wind-energy industry; and the Advanced Materials Center in Anderson County, which concentrates on research of optical fibers for the automotive and health care industries, and the military.

Meanwhile, the Clemson board of trustees voted in October to continue building. The projects authorized then included:

  • The concept stage of a 260,000-square-foot, core-campus construction project for new student housing and dining facilities. The project includes about 700 beds, dining facilities, a convenience store, offices and shared seminar and meeting space for faculty and students. Construction is set to begin in 2014. Total projected cost: $98.4 million;
  • The concept stage of renovations to Lehotsky Hall, a 32-year-old academic building. Renovations will include mechanical and some physical features.Total projected cost: $15 million; and
  • The concept stage of renovations to the John B. Pitner Center at the Pee Dee Research and Education Center in Florence. This center houses the advanced plant-technology program, which provides research for the state’s agriculture industry. Total projected cost: $8 million.

In addition, The Nerve in October reported that Clemson was seeking to lease more than 71,000 square feet in an office high-rise under construction in downtown Greenville for various university programs. The leased property has a projected total value of $12.5 million.

Some officials have argued the best improvement for higher education in South Carolina would be the creation of a board of regents to oversee all public colleges and universities. S. 68, sponsored by Sen. Gerald Malloy, D-Darlington, and H. 3132, sponsored by Rep. Murrell Smith, R-Sumter, and Rep. Garry Smith, R-Greenville, would achieve that, though both bills remain stuck in committee.

Olson can be reached at (803) 254-4411 or curt@thenerve.org. Follow him on Twitter @thenerve_curt and @olson_curt. Follow The Nerve on Facebook and on Twitter @thenervesc.