Addressing deferred maintenance on Oklahoma’s higher ed campuses (Capitol Update)

Sen. Adam Pugh, R-Edmond, who chairs both the Senate Education Committee and the Senate Appropriations Education Subcommittee has introduced Senate Bill 1225, which creates a “Higher Education Deferred Maintenance Revolving Fund.” The monies accruing to the fund would be available to the State Regents for the purpose of funding deferred maintenance projects at the state’s public institutions of higher education. 

This is a reliable signal that some of the “one-time” money available to the legislature next year will be used for the extensive deferred maintenance that has accumulated in the state’s colleges and universities. One-time funds are funds located in the state’s cash accounts that have accumulated from previous years when the legislature failed to appropriate all available funding for operating budgets. 

In an interim study jointly requested by Speaker Pro Tempore Kyle Hilbert, R-Bristow, and Democratic Leader Cyndi Munson, D-Oklahoma City, the House Higher Education Committee learned that about $1.5 billion in deferred maintenance exists in the state’s colleges and universities. [Video of interim study

Of this amount, about $891 million is in the research, medical and veterinary schools (meaning the University of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State University), about $380 million is in the regional and rural universities, and about $190 million is in the urban four-year and two-year schools.

In addition to Speaker Pro Tempore Hilbert and Rep. Munson, Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka, and President Pro Tempore Greg Treat, R-OKC have expressed the time has come to give more attention to higher education.

Proper maintenance of facilities has always been an issue for the state. Historically, state bond issues were used to build and maintain state facilities, but a constitutional provision requires a vote of the people to issue general obligation bonds. A $350 million bond issue for higher education and other state buildings was passed in 1992. In the late 1990s the Supreme Court approved a method of state bonding that bypasses the vote of the people, but a dedicated revenue stream is still required.   

Today’s deferred maintenance for higher education facilities exists largely because, with paltry legislative appropriations to higher education in recent years, only around 4 percent of the college and university budgets have been allocated for maintenance. As recently as 2016 to 2018, for example, higher education appropriations were cut by $250 million. With the limited appropriations, higher education administrators prioritized teaching and research over maintaining physical facilities.

A tour around some of the state’s higher education institutions, especially the smaller, rural schools, reveal visible dilapidated facilities and poor maintenance. It would be difficult for both faculty and students to maintain high morale and a positive learning atmosphere when it does not appear the state values the institution. There is likely quite a bit of work to be done during the session to determine exactly how a deferred maintenance fund would be structured, and how much to appropriate, but it appears the right people are ready to make it a priority.


Steve Lewis served as Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives from 1989-1990. He currently practices law in Tulsa and represents clients at the Capitol.