Bowles: 'I pray' budget cuts won't be too extreme

Staff WriterJune 11, 2010 

— UNC System President Erskine Bowles told the Board of Governors on Thursday that legislative leaders had assured him that the university system will face budget cuts closer to the $54 million approved by the Senate than the "draconian" $175 million cut passed by the House.

Still, Bowles was worried about the outcome enough to head for Raleigh later Thursday to talk more with House members who are negotiating with their counterparts in the Senate to reconcile their versions of the budget.

"I pray for our students and for the economic future of North Carolina that it's closer to the Senate side," Bowles said in a news conference after the board meeting.

The legislature is struggling to cover an $800 million revenue shortfall for the state at a time when raising taxes would be all but impossible politically.

Bowles said he understands that there will have to be cuts but says the House cuts are so extreme that they would destroy the economic and social future of the state. Among other things, they would force the system to eliminate about 1,700 jobs, about 1,000 of them filled and most of those faculty positions. It also would force the 16 universities in the system to slash 6,300 class sections, increasing class sizes and making it harder for students to get classes they need and graduate on time.

The cuts come from an annual system budget of about $7.4 billion.

Chancellor Rosemary DePaolo of UNC Wilmington said parents of incoming freshmen on campus now for orientation were bewildered by the size of the potential cuts and were asking whether their children would be able to get the classes they need and what would happen with tuition over the next few years.

The House proposal, DePaolo said, would be devastating.

"It's going to put us so far back for so long I can't imagine when we could recover from it," she said.

The House budget also would do greater harm to poor and middle class families, Bowles said, because it included a 1 percent cap on enrollment growth and a provision for $23 million less in need-based financial aid than the Senate version.

The smaller amount for financial aid would mean 6,000 to 8,000 qualified students being turned down for need-based aid, and the enrollment cap would force the system to reject about 2,700 qualified potential students a year.

It would be the first time in the history of the system that it was forced to say no to qualified students, Bowles said.

"By capping the growth and not funding the need-based aid, that means that the people who are really going to be hurt in North Carolina are the kids who come from poor families and middle class families," he said. "We just can't deny access to poor kids. It's just not right. That's not the North Carolina way."

The huge difference in the proposed House and Senate cuts shows that the UNC system needs to do a better job of building relationships among House members, said Marshall Pitts of Fayetteville, a member of the Board of Governors.

Bowles said that he and the chancellors had concentrated their lobbying effort on House members and that students and faculty had also gone to the legislature to help make the case.

Bowles said the UNC system's funding usually becomes a hot issue at budget time but that even he had been surprised that the big cuts got as far as the final version of the House budget.

The objections to the House budget aren't a matter of dodging responsibility, Bowles said. The system has been doing its share, already making $50 million in cuts for the current year and absorbing $575 million in cuts in the past few years. In the past year, it cut administrative costs by 23 percent, he said, leaving little left to cut that doesn't directly involve teaching.

"The vast majority of [the cuts] will have to come out of the academic side and that will lead to lower quality education," Bowles said. "That's something North Carolina can't live with in a knowledge-based economy."

jay.price@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4526

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