State legislator backs bill benefitting his employer

My NC Policy Watch colleague Chris Fitzsimon wrote a column yesterday that mentioned a freshman Senator who introduced a bill directly benefiting his employer, one of the state’s community colleges.

Here’s a bit more information on the situation. The legislator was state Sen. Ralph Hise, a freshman Republican from Spruce Pine who works for Mayland Community College as a planning officer.

In what had previously been a blank bill, Hise inserted language that would sell, for $1, the shuttered Blue Ridge Correctional Facility to the three-campus college that serves the mountain communities of Mitchell, Avery and Yancey counties. The bill ran through the Senate on June 7 and 8, making the crossover deadline and passing with no problem.

It didn’t seem to have a whiff of controversy at first. The state-owned prison for younger male offenders had been closed and empty since 2002, and the college needed room to grow.

But it wasn’t disclosed along with the bill that Hise works for the community college, earning $45,432 a year as an institutional assessment and planning officer.

He’s on unpaid leave now, because of the legislative session, and had his position changed to a math tutor on Feb. 1. That will allow Hise to start working again once the legislative session is over, accord to John Boyd, the community college’s president. When Hise comes back , he’ll be put in a position that’s in the “best interest of the students and the college,” Boyd wrote in an email.

Jane Pinsky, the director of the N.C. Coalition for  Lobbying and Government Reform, said Hise shouldn’t have introduced the bill affecting the college or, at the very least, disclosed that his employer was directly benefiting from the legislation.

“The basic rule of ethics is that you shouldn’t do anything that benefits you financially,” Pinsky said. “Hise needed to have at least publicly announced that there was a conflict of interest.”

Hise did not return calls for comment on Thursday and earlier today.

Sarah Clapp, the Senate’s chief principal clerk, said her office was aware that Hise worked for the college, but that he hadn’t filed any written notice with the clerk’s office that his employer was being affected by the bill he was backing.

The transfer of the prison land to the community college comes at a time when Mayland, like all the community colleges in the state, is anticipating cutting their budget by 10 percent.  With only 130 staffers, that means 13 positions will be eliminated, Boyd said. Most of those will be administrative, but the cuts will include four classroom instruction positions where teachers are retiring, Boyd said.

Hise’s previous position was combined with another position after he left. Boyd said it was too premature to say what job Hise would be coming back to.

As for the property itself, Boyd said the prison campus will need some updating and renovation pegged to come under $500,000. Once done, it’ll allow the school to use classroom facilities and expand the kitchen facilities to let local growers and entrepreneurs to use the commercial-grade kitchen to make sell-able products.

“We see some great opportunities,” Boyd said.

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