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Commentary

Another day and another lead editorial in Raleigh’s News & Observer rightfully blasting lawmakers for heartless and shortsighted  cuts to people in need:

“North Carolina’s Republican legislators leave no stone unturned when it comes to cutting the state budget to make possible tax cuts most benefiting the wealthy and businesses. Then, they roll that stone toward the disadvantaged and people of modest means.

The latest action will cut $110 million from the budgets for the state’s eight regional mental health centers. The GOP solution? They say the centers can just use their savings to fill the gap, rather than use the money saved to look for new treatments and innovations.

So, while those who are able to afford private care can have access to new treatments that might improve or even save their lives, those who depend on state-assisted care will be denied those treatments.”

But, as the editorial concludes, we shouldn’t be surprised:

“The shortsightedness, the lack of any kind of sympathy for constituents in need of mental health care, would be astonishing were it not part of a disturbing pattern designed by Republican lawmakers to pound the defenseless poor at any opportunity.

And without new treatments that might help, those who depend upon the state for mental health treatment will hold the line at best and perhaps suffer more severe problems should their difficulties persist.”

Click here to read the entire editorial.

News

University system leaders are happy with how they emerged in the state budget, saying they were grateful lawmakers opted to fund enrollment growth and other asks they had.

UNC system president Tom Ross (left) and John Fennebresque, UNC Board of Governor, in file photo.

UNC system president Tom Ross (left) and John Fennebresque, UNC Board of Governor, in file photo.

John Fennebresque, a Charlotte attorney who serves as the chair of University of North Carolina’s Board of Governors, called the $100 million overall increase for the university system “the best budget” since the Recession began in 2008.

Among the things lawmakers opted to fund in the two-year budget signed into law this afternoon by Gov. Pat McCrory were annual enrollment growth costs of $49 million, and earmarked dollars to vshore up East Carolina University’s medical school and Elizabeth City State University.

Chancellors will also be able to carry over financial savings they might find on their campuses to future years, in order to fund other priorities.

Those words of praise about the budget came despite the UNC system being handed $64.4 million in discretionary cuts over the next two years, and following nearly $500 million in cuts the system has weathered since 2010.

UNC system staff and faculty, like all state employees, also received a $750 bonus in the budget instead of any type of permanent salary adjustment.

Tom Ross, the president of the UNC system, said that he viewed the budget overall as a positive for the UNC system in comments he made during Friday’s meeting.

“Our enrollment was fully funded for both years,” Ross said, referring to the additional $49 million each year allotted to cover increasing numbers of students. “We’ve got to have the resources to educate the students when they come.”

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Commentary

News reports this morning continue to advance the notion that state lawmakers will come together on a state budget prior to the expiration of the current continuing resolution next Friday. As most reports have noted, the issue is made more complex by a House rule that requires 72 hours of public notice prior to the final votes on the budget. This means that lawmakers have to cut their final deal and get it published by the beginning of next week in order to meet the deadline.

While this may, indeed, be possible to pull off, it is worth noting that another House rule could impact the timing of next week’s process as well.

House Rule 44(b) (click here and go to page 21-22) reads as follows:

(b) The conference report may be made by a majority of the House members of such conference committee and shall not be amended. If the Senate has a similar rule, only such matters as are in difference between the two houses shall be considered by the conferees, and the conference report shall deal only with such matters. If the Senate does not have a similar rule, a conference committee report which includes significant matters that were not in difference between the houses, shall be referred to a standing committee for its recommendation before further action by the House.

The matter at issue with this rule is the question of inserting new items into the conference report that were not in the versions of the bill passed by either body. The common sense principle is that conference committees established to work out the differences between the two houses ought not to be adding completely new provisions out of thin air that were never in either version of the bill.

Not surprisingly, the wild and crazy Senate has no rule barring such shenanigans, but the House (see above) does. The clear impact of this rule is to require, at a minimum, an additional House committee meeting (presumably of the Appropriations Committee) to consider the new provisions added by conferees.

This means that if, for instance, the final conference report has a provision on the construction of terminal groins along the coast (something that was not in either version of the budget) the House must have a committee meeting to consider and approve such an addition. And while such a meeting could, presumably, be put together in relatively short order, it does offer the prospect of at least some minimal public airing of the details of what is sure to be a massive, secretly negotiated document.

Let’s hope House Speaker Tim Moore does the right thing and enforces this rule.

News

The search for the next president of the University of North Carolina system is moving along quickly, with a search committee now looking at individual candidates.

UNCsystemAn announcement came last night that the presidential search committee will meet three times over the next week for “candidate review.” The meetings will be held on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday, on SAS’s Campus in Cary.

“They are down to the point where they are considering individual candidates more closely,” said Joni Worthington, a spokeswoman for the UNC system.

The meetings begin at 8 a.m. on Sunday, and at 8:30 a.m. Monday and Tuesday, according to a meeting notice distributed to media.

(Ann Goodnight, wife of SAS co-founder Jim Goodnight, is a former UNC Board of Governor member serving on the presidential search committee).

The current UNC President Tom Ross will stay in his job until January, and the governing board has indicated it hopes to have his successor announced this fall.

The presidential search committee will present its choice to the full Board of Governors, which is meeting next week in Winston-Salem. The following meeting will be at the end of October, in Chapel Hill.

The presidential search meetings next week have to be publicly announced and are considered public meetings, though the bulk of the meeting will be held in closed session, in line with the board’s decision to keep the search for the next UNC system president confidential.

Other states take different tactics when it comes to confidentiality, with the names of final candidates for public higher education posts sometimes released to the public or opportunities for candidates to meet with major stakeholders like faculty and staff.

That was the case this month in Iowa, where the new head of the that system, former IBM executive Bruce Harreld, is now facing resistance from faculty, staff and student groups worried about his lack of higher education experience.

Harreld, when he met with faculty during the interview process in Iowa, also rankled faculty with a comment he learned about the University of Iowa system from Wikipedia.

Here in North Carolina, the UNC Board of Governors fired its current president Tom Ross last January, for reasons that still have not been fully explained other than a general desire for change and new direction.

Ross, a Democrat, has led the UNC system since 2011, a time when the system contended with significant funding cuts from the state legislature and while higher education rapidly underwent changes overall.

The current 32 members of the UNC Board of Governor all received their appointments from a N.C. General Assembly dominated by Republicans.

News

It’s certainly not the highest-profile issue, but the new $21.74 billion state budget (whenever it does get passed) could usher in a new approach to higher education in the state.

Earlier House and Senate versions of the budget endorsed giving Western Governors University, an online-based higher education system, a bigger footprint in the state, and one propped up with taxpayer money.

At this point, there are more questions than answers about what will end up in the final state budget, with House and Senate lawmakers now two months behind issuing a budget for the next two years.

WGU

WGU headquarters in Utah

Western Governors University, or WGU, is a non-profit online college, started in 1995 by a bipartisan group of governors in the western part of the country. It specializes in reaching out to “part-way home” students, those that had taken some college courses but because of life or family choices before obtaining a degree.

(Click here to read a previous article about WGU’s foray into North Carolina.)

It costs students approximately $3,000 for unlimited classes during a 6-month period and uses a competency-based model, where students can get credits for classes if they already know the material and can pass a test showing that.

Here in North Carolina, Gov. Pat McCrory is in favor of bringing WGU to the state, and had a meeting at the Executive Mansion in November with Robert Mendenhall, the CEO of the Utah-based University.

In their proposal, House members suggested letting students attending WGU to tap into a $90 million pool of state money used for need-based aid to students attending private colleges in the state.

The Senate took a different approach, and would give the Utah-based college $2 million in state money to set up shop here, with the possibility of drawing down $5 million more if private funds are also raised.

As expected, WGU has both proponents and critics.

It’s hailed by supporters as a fairly low-cost way for older students who may be busy working to finish their degrees, while critics say it offers an inferior education and undermines existing offerings at universities and community colleges.

The $6,000 annual cost for a year at WGU is much lower than what for-profit online colleges like the University of Phoenix and Strayer University can cost.

But it is on par, or close to what UNC system institutions charged this year in tuition and fees, which range from $4,655 a year at Elizabeth City State University to $8,407 at N.C. State University for the 2015-16 school year.

WGU currently has a six-year graduation rate of 38 percent, a rate they hope to increase, which is much lower than the 63.1 percent that graduate from UNC institutions in six years.

Not everyone’s thrilled at the prospect of WGU coming to the state.

John Fennebresque, the chair of the University of North Carolina’s Board of Governors, says the state’s existing higher education institutions can do more for North Carolina-based students than WGU can.

He attended the November meeting McCrory had with WGU in November.

“We can do all that within the (UNC) system,” Fennebresque said in an interview this week with N.C. Policy Watch. He added, “I saw nothing that they offer that we don’t or can’t do.”