HARRISBURG - A bill to impose a two-year moratorium starting in 2014 on non-emergency construction projects at the 14 state-owned universities is drawing debate.

The House State Government Committee held a hearing last week on the measure, which is part of a package of bills targeting spending practices by the State System of Higher Education.

The focus on campus construction costs follows approval under the fiscal 2012-13 state budget of a nine-month moratorium for a state program that helps school districts pay for projects to build or renovate buildings. The moratorium for the PlanCom program will start Oct. 1, while state Education Department officials review whether to change the program or end it.

The proposed moratorium on campus projects is aimed at stopping "frivolous" construction, bill sponsor Rep. Brad Roae, R-6, Titusville, told the House panel. He cited an elevated walkway at Edinboro University as an example.

Projects to replace roofs, boilers, water systems and make emergency repairs would be exempt from the moratorium, Roae said.

The bill would require that SSHE officials obtain written certification from the Department of General Services that an emergency condition exists if they want to undertake a project during the moratorium.

Roae said a moratorium will reduce the size of annual debt payments, which add to the cost of tuition bills paid by students.

SSHE Chancellor Dr. John C. Cavanaugh said the universities are trying to address a backlog of deferred maintenance projects costing an estimated $2.6 billion.

SSHE spends about $100 million annually on infrastructure projects, but an outside study estimates that $200 million a year is needed to keep pace with the backlog, according to university documents. More than two-thirds of the projects involve building improvements or replacements and maintenance involving roofs and windows and safety code issues.

"Instead of saving money, this bill will create situations where the health, welfare and safety of students and the public would be put at risk," testified Kenneth Mash, Ph.D., a professor at East Stroudsburg University who is vice president of the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Facilities.

Contact the writer: rswift@timesshamrock.com