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Roper continues to highlight damage of state budget impasse on UNC system

Interim UNC System President Bill Roper continued his recent push for a resolution to the state budget impasse Thursday, visiting Western Carolina University and the Morganton campus of the N.C. School of Science and Mathematics to highlight budget-related problems at both schools.

Interim UNC System President Bill Roper speaks during a tour of the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics’ Morganton campus Thursday.

President Roper met with leaders at both schools to discuss repairs and capital projects but off by the the budget standoff between Gov. Roy Cooper and the GOP majority in the North Carolina General Assembly.

“Continuing support of our universities requires fiscal backing from our state’s leaders,” Roper said. “My concern for the UNC System is, pure and simple, nonpartisan and apolitical, which is why I will continue to request that our state’s leaders on both sides of the aisle come together to find a resolution. I maintain hope that the budget will get enacted. There are no greater examples to illustrate the importance of getting this accomplished than the critical needs that face Western Carolina.”

At Western Carolina the largest problem is an old and failing steam plant that provides heat and hot water for the campus. School leaders say it is one bad winter or mechanical failure from a total shutdown that would cripple the school.

Last month the opening of the School of Science and Mathematics’ Morganton campus was officially delayed a full year, from August of 2021 to August of 2022, as it is without the funds to staff up and begin serving students.

“Due to circumstances beyond our control, we regret that we cannot welcome our first residential class as originally planned in 2021,” said Todd Roberts, Chancellor of NCSSM. “However, I can assure you that our institution is fully committed to opening a campus of the highest quality at NCSSM-Morganton as soon as it can be achieved.”

Beyond campus needs, Roper highlighted the impact of the budget stalemate on the N.C. Promise Tuition Plan.

Through the program, the state reduced student tuition cost to $500 per semester at three UNC system institutions: Elizabeth City State University, UNC-Pembroke and Western Carolina University.

But the money to continue doing so is tied up in the budget. Western Carolina is facing a $4 million funding shortfall for fall of 2018 and 2019.

Roper warned that without a new budget, the UNC System could be forced to reduce or limit enrollment growth in the Fall semester of 2020, possibly though the Fall semester of 2021.

“The long-term effects of a lack of funding could be devastating to the health of our campus,” WCU Chancellor Kelli R. Brown said Thursday.

“We are beginning to think about the possible need to slow the rate of enrollment growth because we don’t want to enroll a larger number of students and not be able to provide them with the high-quality educational experiences that they expect,” Brown said. “The lack of funding to meet the needs of our increasing enrollment won’t be felt in just the classroom. For example, I am concerned about the impact in our ability to meet the health care needs of our students, including mental health.”

As Policy Watch has reported, the budget impasse has put the UNC System in a difficult political position. The UNC Board of Governors, appointed by the GOP majority in the legislature, initially called for lawmakers to overturn Gov. Cooper’s budget veto and enact the budget favored by Republicans in the legislature. But the board has been criticized for taking sides in the political struggle — and for encouraging the individual board of trustees of UNC schools to follow suit.

Having lost its legislative supermajority, Republican leadership couldn’t muster the votes to overturn Cooper’s veto. After months of trying to woo Democrats to their side, Republican leadership announced there would be no new budget – not this year, and perhaps not next.

That doesn’t mean a government shutdown – the state will just continue to operate at last year’s spending levels, with some supplementary “mini-budgets” being passed on largely non-controversial items. But major capital projects, long-awaited construction and repairs and raises for faculty at schools across the UNC system will, for now, go unfunded.

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