Durham County

N.C. House budget writers release spending plan for for UNC system

N.C. House budget writers have proposed scaling back a program that’s supposed to offer heavily discounted tuition at three UNC system campuses, to make it available only to in-state students.

The draft 2017-18 budget for the system endorsed 10-4 on Thursday by the House’s education appropriations subcommittee also would eliminate funding for the N.C. Policy Collaboratory, the environmental-policy think tank legislators ordered set up at UNC-Chapel Hill just last year.

The change to the tuition discounts, the N.C. Promise Tuition program, would save taxpayers nearly $11 million in fiscal 2018-19 by ruling out the participation of out-of-state students.

“North Carolina taxpayers’ money should be spent, by and large, on North Carolinians,” said state Rep. Craig Horn, R-Union, the subcommittee co-chairman who presided over Thursday’s review. “That should be the focus.”

Passed last year, the discount program caps in-state tuition at Western Carolina University, Elizabeth City State University and UNC-Pembroke at $500 a semester.

That will remain, but the new budget proposal emerging from Horn’s committee would eliminate a separate, $2,500 cap on out-of-state tuition for the three campuses.

Because legislators had promised UNC leaders they’d compensate Western, Elizabeth City and Pembroke from any revenue losses associated with the program, the change means the state won’t have to supply them as much money in fiscal 2018-19.

The three campuses remain in line to eventually receive an extra $40 million in state subsidies, to cover in-state students once the program goes into effect, legislative staffers said.

Along with eliminating the need for a further $11 million in subsidies, barring out-of-state students from participating also would effectively do away with the “border tuition” aspect of the N.C. Promise Tuition program.

Some campus and UNC officials have favored letting campuses on the edge of the state, like Elizabeth City State, offer discounts on out-of-state tuition to attract students from the Norfolk, Virginia area and similarly neighboring locales.

But Horn said UNC’s campuses already offer out-of-staters a good deal, even at full price.

“Personally, I believe more in incentives and rewards than I do in purchasing students,” he said. “North Carolina colleges and universities are still in the bottom quartile of costs in the nation. We are a value, already. For us to take North Carolinians’ money to make it an even better value for non-North Carolinians does not, to me … it’s not a path I wish to go down.”

Meanwhile, the elimination of funding for the N.C. Policy Collaboratory would cost UNC-Chapel Hill $1 million a year in recurring money.

The collaboratory was an unexpected addition to the state’s fiscal 2016-17 budget, ostensibly put there to give state leaders access to state-of-the-art thinking about such matters as the future of North Carolina’s shellfish industry and pollution control in man-made reservoirs like Jordan Lake.

But it’s been controversial from the start because legislators ordered it set up under UNC-Chapel Hill’s business office, rather than under the academic arm of the institution led by Provost Jim Dean.

Further fueling contention, speculation quickly surfaced that Jeffrey Warren, then an aide to state Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, likely had the inside track to get a job at the collaboratory.

That proved out in March, when UNC-Chapel Hill officials confirmed they’d hired Warren as the collaboratory’s research director. He reports to Brad Ives, the university’s associate vice chancellor for campus enterprises.

Horn’s objections, however, were more fundamental.

“I’ve never understood the collaboratory from the beginning, quite frankly,” Horn said. “I don’t know what I’m getting for what I’m paying. No one’s been able to explain that to me.”

The subcommittee draft doesn’t include a N.C. Senate proposal to cut $4 million from the budget of UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Law.

Neither House committees nor the Senate budget proposal would supply an extra $2 million Gov. Roy Cooper has requested for N.C. Central University’s planned new business school. Cooper wants the money added to what’s already $30 million in bond funding, to underwrite land purchases at a project site at the corner of N.C. 55 and Lawson Street in Durham.

Cooper, the Senate and House budget writers have all lined up behind the idea of putting $30 million in the budget to support physician-in-training residency programs, restoring money legislators cut several years ago and addressing a bottleneck for the state’s ability to train new doctors.

The House proposal, like Cooper’s and unlike the Senate’s, doesn’t include any money for fiscal 2017-18 to expand the size of medical school classes at UNC-Chapel Hill or East Carolina University.

But a House subcommittee that deals with capital projects wants to give ECU $2.3 million in the upcoming fiscal year to begin planning a new medical-education building Chancellor Cecil Staton and other officials have said the Greenville campus needs if it’s to host a bigger med-school class.

Horn indicated House budget-writers want to lay the groundwork for and perhaps phase in an expansion.

“At this point, given that there’s going to be need for more space, in capital, let’s not get ahead of ourselves,” he said.

When it comes to make the case for expansion, he added, ECU has a leg up.

“ECU and the Brody School [of Medicine] produce a large percentage of our [general practitioners], that serve our poorest and most rural areas,” Horn said. “So that goes to the top of the list, funding that.”

The draft of the education budget now has to go through the full House Appropriations Committee before reaching the House floor.

Ray Gronberg: 919-419-6648, @rcgronberg