Art Pope raises proper questions about UNC's budget request

March 5, 2014 

A stern cautionary note from state budget director Art Pope to the University of North Carolina system comes down to this: This is my second memo about the state budget. You guys must not have gotten the first one.

Pope has sent UNC system officials back to the budget drawing board, and because he is viewed as the top adviser to Gov. Pat McCrory and the most influential person in the executive branch, the message will be received.

Pope told university officials in a Feb. 28 memo that they’re asking for too much money. He noted that to satisfy the university system’s request for a budget increase of $288 million, or 11.3 percent, the state would have to make “major reductions” in other agencies, including the court system and public schools. He noted the state also has a major obligation with Medicaid, the health care system for the poor and disabled.

The university system is seeking the money as the legislature readies to convene this spring to adjust the second year of its two-year budget.

University officials and supporters fear, and not without justification, that Republicans who control the General Assembly intend to shift more of the burden of funding the system to students through increases in tuition and fee and perhaps by taking federal money given to support research and applying it to general expenses.

Tuition hikes, of which there have been too many over the last dozen years, should not be an option. In fact, tuition should be lowered in order to fulfill the state’s constitutional mandate of an education as close to free “as practicable.”

Requiring the university system, a jewel in the state’s crown, to excessively tighten its budget would be foolish not just in terms of the system’s mission to raise horizons for the state’s young people but for our economic future as well. Communities of all sizes rely on the system’s graduates for economic health and leadership. And entities such as the Research Triangle Park are university system partners.

Nonetheless, it’s fair and appropriate for Pope to question the UNC system’s budget request. Peter Hans, chairman of the UNC system’s Board of Governors, gave exactly the right response in saying he and the board “welcome tough questions about how the university proposes to spend public dollars.” He said Pope was “doing what taxpayers should expect him to do.”

But Hans vowed that the university would make its case and that it would have good answers to Pope’s questions.

Gone are the days when the system’s founding president, William Friday, could effectively persuade lawmakers to supply the UNC system with most if not all of what it wanted, usually with a phone call.

And this must be said: At the larger research institutions, the administrative bureaucracies have grown large, perhaps too large. It’s something those institutions need to examine closely, and it’s something of which cost-cutting legislators will surely take note. During a time of overall budget cutting, administrative costs have to be first on the block.

The UNC system is too valuable to a breathtakingly large cross section of North Carolina families not to be well funded. But it must cooperate with Pope because of the practical political reality of the moment and because he has a right as budget director to raise reasonable questions and to encourage the system to have perspective on the needs of the state as a whole.

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