UNC campuses struggling to make do as state budget impasse nears ninth month

By: - February 27, 2020 5:28 am
Western Carolina University (Image: WCU.edu)

As temperatures fell last week, a few inches of snowfall led to school closures and hot chocolate in Raleigh and Chapel Hill.

A few hours west, in Cullowhee, the atmosphere was a bit more anxious.

Students, staff and faculty at Western Carolina University were trying not to think about the outdated and failing steam plant that provides heat and hot water on campus. It’s one bad winter – perhaps one bad cold snap – from the kind of complete failure that would shut down the campus.

Meanwhile, in Greensboro, many students at N.C. A&T were welcoming the cooler weather and hoping it lasts. The 250-seat auditorium of the campus’ Carver Hall has no air conditioning, making lectures there a sort of slow torture when the temperatures edge toward 100 degrees in the late spring and summer months.

The building, erected in 1955 and now home to the College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences, also isn’t accessible enough to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act

The new Morganton campus of the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics has even larger problems. This month its opening was officially delayed a full year as it is without the funds to staff up and begin serving students.

None of this was supposed to happen in 2020.

A new state budget was supposed to provide a half million dollars to replace that steam plant in Cullowhee, give Carver Hall an $18.5 million makeover and fund a grand opening for Science and Mathematic students in Morganton.

But that money is still in Raleigh, mired in a state budget standoff between Democrats and Republicans that has dragged on since June.

On one side, the North Carolina General Assembly’s Republican majority. They insist on the budget they passed last summer.

On the other, Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper. He vetoed the Republicans’ preferred budget, insisting GOP lawmakers come to the table to negotiate a compromise that would expand Medicaid in the state and provide more money for teachers.

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.

A partisan fight, a bipartisan problem

As the UNC system office and UNC Board of Governors see the damage of the stalemate play out, they are struggling with how to respond.

As Policy Watch reported earlier this month, the GOP dominated Board of Governors initially sided with Republican legislators. The board passed a resolution supporting the Republican-favored budget and calling for its passage over Cooper’s veto.

In that resolution, the board also called on the boards of trustees of all UNC System schools to pass concurring resolutions as quickly as they could.

UNC Board of Governors member Marty Kotis

UNC Board of Governors member Marty Kotis, who pushed for the resolution, said he hoped it would help push Democrats to join with Republicans to overturn Cooper’s veto and pass a budget he said was best for the system.

“I do hope that there will be some Democrats who see this and decide to put their local universities, and the university system, ahead of politics,” Kotis said. “I would hope there are some people who will make that decision.”

Some trustees, however, told Policy Watch they resented being drafted into an active political fight in Raleigh, saying it isn’t their role to take sides. And some boards of trustees – notably, those at N.C. A&T and UNC-Greensboro – chose to instead pass resolutions that urged the passage of a budget, but didn’t stake themselves out on which version they would prefer.

“An argument I would make is that by supporting a specific piece of legislation that seeks to favor one party over the other is not where we want to be…” UNCG Chancellor Frank Gilliam said, as reported by the News & Record in Greensboro. “If the Ds and Rs were reversed, I would take the same position.”

Last week UNC leadership seemed split on the backlash.

UNC Board of Governors member Philip Byers railed against the idea that his board’s resolution was partisan, saying “shame on the media” for portraying it that way.

UNC system Interim President Bill Roper

UNC system Interim President Bill Roper was more cautious, going out of his way to say he favors a solution to what he called “the state budget morass” however it can be accomplished, without regard to the positions of political parties.

“I say this without seeking to be political and without placing blame on any party or any single state official,” Roper said. “My concern for the UNC system is, pure and simple, non-partisan. But there is too much at stake to quibble over how our budget gets enacted. I’m passionate about seeing that it does get enacted, one way or another.”

Roper announced a coming tour of campuses during which he and other UNC officials will point to the mounting damage of the budget impasse.

Compromise or ‘Cold War’?

There is no question about the impact of the ongoing budget impasse on the university system, members of the House Standing Committee on Education/Universities told Policy Watch this week.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be getting lawmakers closer to a solution.

“We all want a budget passed,” said Rep. Marcia Morey (D-Durham). “We all want funding to go forward and certainty. But it’s not just the university system – it’s local school boards trying to put together their budgets, hundreds of thousands of people trying to afford health care. It’s everyone.”

Cooper has been willing to negotiate with Republican leadership to come to a budget compromise, Morey said, but has so far been rebuffed.

“We went through an entire legislative session where they refused to take a vote because they knew they didn’t have the votes in the Senate to override the veto,” Morey said. “I personally think instead of holding and waiting to see who wins the election, we should go back into session and sit here until we have a vote on the veto. We’ll see they don’t have the votes and then we can talk about what to do next to get a budget passed.”

“It’s just a stalemate now,” Morey said. “And it’s hurting everyone.”

Roper is right to take a more measured, less partisan approach to calling for a budget solution, Morey said. It’s not the job of the UNC Board of Governors to weigh in on behalf of the party that appointed them, she said.

Rep. Grier Martin (D-Wake) agreed.

“I do think it was inappropriate for them to in any way shape or form push for a particular side in this,” Martin said. “But it’s absolutely [Roper’s] job to point out the negative effects that a lack of a budget compromise has brought about or may continue to bring about.”
The lack of a government shutdown in a standoff of this type is both a blessing a curse, Martin said.

“Obviously in North Carolina we don’t have the possibility of a government shut down because of legislation that lets us limp along at current spending levels in most cases,” Martin said. “The advantage is we avoid a shutdown. The disadvantage is it removes a political ‘sword of Damocles’ that dangled over the head of all parties.”

Without the pressure of a catastrophic event like a shutdown, Martin said, neither side feels enough pressure to force a compromise.

Rep. Grier Martin

“The knob is slowly being turned up now, rather than the switch being flipped by a government shutdown,” Martin said. “And each day brings more and more stories of problems with government’s inability to work for people because of the lack of compromise.”

A recent WRAL News poll showed showed a majority of North Carolinians surveyed back Cooper’s positions on the issues driving the budget impasse. Nearly three-quarters of those polled said they prefer school funding increases over a tax cut. A majority also said they are for expanding Medicaid coverage to more of the state’s working poor.

Martin said he doesn’t know whether that number is likely to grow or taper off the longer the standoff drags on.

Most North Carolinians favor “common sense” and therefore want to see a compromise, Martin said. Cooper has offered to negotiate a compromise with Republicans he said, but so far they haven’t been willing to come to the table.

“The one thing I know is, it’s not safe for either political party to think that damage done to our state could advantage one party or the other,” Martin said. “The approach both parties need to bring to this is, ‘How can we find a solution that meets the needs of all the people of North Carolina?’”

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Joe Killian
Joe Killian

Investigative Reporter Joe Killian's work examines government, politics and policy, with a special emphasis on higher education, LGBTQ issues and extremism.