Senate budget draft not as generous as Cooper’s to UNC system campuses

Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, takes questions from reporters as the Senate's budget proposal is presented during a press conference on Tuesday, May 9, 2017.
Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, takes questions from reporters as the Senate's budget proposal is presented during a press conference on Tuesday, May 9, 2017.

A proposed $4 million cut to the budget of the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Law highlights a fiscal 2017-18 draft budget from the N.C Senate that’s considerably less generous to the UNC system than Gov. Roy Cooper’s request.

The law-school cut revived a proposal the Senate floated in 2015, when former Sen. Tom Apodaca, R-Henderson, convinced a majority of his colleagues to call for a $3 million reduction of its state subsidy. In subsequent budget talks, the idea was dropped. Opponents speculated that Senate leaders added it to draft that year to use as a bargaining chip in negotiations with the N.C. House on the final version of the budget.

This time around, the proposal surfaces as the UNC system’s Board of Governors debates a proposal to forbid law school centers and institutes at UNC-Chapel Hill and N.C. Central University from supplying legal representation. It also comes as the Chapel Hill law school continues to a slide in the U.S. News & World Report national rankings, a trend that has seen it fall behind public university counterparts in 14 other states.

Its No. 39 ranking stands out because many graduate- and professional-school programs at UNC-Chapel Hill compete on level terms in the U.S. News rankings with counterparts at top-level private schools like Duke University.

The UNC system’s director of state government relations, Jonathan Kappler, said he didn’t “have any information” on the identity of the senators who are pushing the law school cut. Another observer, state Sen. Floyd McKissick, D-Durham, likewise said he’s “not 100 percent sure what’s behind it or who’s behind it.”

Another proposed Senate cut would direct the UNC system to slash spending on centers and institutes on its campuses by $8 million.

Centers and institutes generally house start-up programs or more established academic programs, like UNC-Chapel Hill’s Frank Porter Graham Child Development Center, that do cross-disciplinary work that doesn’t fit neatly under a single department’s umbrella.

All told, the Senate proposes allotting $34.2 million more to the state’s universities than they received in the current fiscal year. That essentially pays part of the cost of across-the-board salary increases UNC’s faculty and staff would receive with other state workers. But there’s no set-aside in it for enrollment growth, unlike in Cooper’s request, which all told sought an increase of $61.5 million for universities.

The Senate draft also didn’t fund the system’s request for $3 million to put into a special reserve it uses to help campus leaders fend off faculty-hiring raids by competing universities.

Senate budget writers, Republicans mostly, agreed with Cooper and the UNC system that the state should finance a $2.8 million rescue plan for Elizabeth City State University to help officials there “stabilize” its falling enrollment.

They and the governor also agreed the state should set aside $11 million so it can honor promises to shield Elizabeth City, UNC-Pembroke and Western Carolina from losses triggered by the imposition of a $500-a-head cap on in-state tuition that’s going into effect for those campuses in fall 2018.

“All is OK on that front,” Kappler said.

Elsewhere, the Senate appears more willing than Cooper to fund an expansion of enrollment in the state’s medical schools, but wouldn’t go as far as UNC President Margaret Spellings and the system board want. Its draft sets aside $3 million to add 15 class slots to UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Medicine.

System leaders want $10 million, and also want to include East Carolina University’s med school in the expansion.

The Senate’s Chapel Hill-only counter emerged a few weeks after it and the House via a biennial election decided to chop, from four down to one, the number of ECU alumni who serve on the Board of Governors. Cooper didn’t propose funding either med-school expansion.

Elsewhere in the budget, both Cooper and the Senate would restore $30 million in state subsidies for physician-in-training residency placements. That program had fallen victim to cuts in prior years, creating a placement bottleneck that UNC-Chapel Hill and ECU agree has to be fixed if the state is to educate more MDs.

And the Senate draft didn’t include a $2 million request from Cooper that would finance land acquisition for N.C. Central University’s new business-school building.

That project has $30 million in funding from last year’s statewide bond issue, but NCCU leaders want to put the building on land at the corner of Lawson Street and N.C. 55 that’s still in private ownership.

McKissick, the Durham state senator, voiced optimism that the $2 million will make it into the final version of the budget.

In the Senate, which is voting on its draft this week, “the question is if we can do something short-term as a placeholder to make sure it gets the attention it deserves,” said McKissick, who like Cooper is a Democrat. “From what I gather, there wasn’t any intent to de-fund it. It’s just a matter of it perhaps not being in the front of the minds of those crafting the budget at that time.”

Ray Gronberg: 919-419-6648, @rcgronberg