Liberals joke that State Budget Director Art Pope, not Pat McCrory, is the real governor of North Carolina.
But now it seems they conferred the wrong title. Pope, the wealthy owner of discount stores and funder of conservative candidates and think tanks, apparently would prefer to run the University of North Carolina System. That’s the message implicit in his recent description of the university system’s budget request as “unrealistic.”
In a memo to university leaders, Pope pointedly said the university was asking for too much and should consider using money from sources other than the general fund. He said the university system had basically ignored his office’s instructions in December to keep its budget increase to no more than 2 percent.
The university responded by setting aside its request for $74 million in new construction money, but stood by its need for $108 million more in operating money.
The budget director, of course, has a duty to critically assess budget requests. But this was more than taking a sharp pencil to the university’s spending plan.
First, he characterized it as a request for an 11 percent spending increase. He got that double-digit percentage by combining the university’s request for continuing operating funds with one-time capital and repair and renovation expenses. Those types of spending usually are considered separately when the General Assembly sets the state budget. The requested operating increase is only 4.6 percent.
Second, the budget director made his objections known in a formal and public way. Instead of picking up the phone and asking UNC President Tom Ross for explanations and modifications, he held up the university as profligate. It was a politically charged move because many people resent the university’s tuition increases and its ranks of well-paid administrators.
Finally, Pope’s memo focused on increased spending without accounting for cuts to UNC’s budget in recent years. This fiscal year, the UNC system received $2.5 billion in state money for operations. That’s less than the system received in 2007-08 before a succession of annual budget cuts.
Since 2007-08, appropriations per student have dropped 7 percent, and the cost of a UNC education has shifted more to students. Funding that had been 74 percent from the state and 26 percent from tuition has slipped to 64 percent state and 36 percent tuition. North Carolina was one of only three states in the South that failed to increase its spending on higher education last year. Meanwhile, the system is struggling to retain faculty and the millions of dollars in grants that they bring in.
Pope dismissed the UNC request as ignoring the state’s tight finances, but it is Gov. McCrory and the Republican leaders of the General Assembly who have spent wantonly. The legislature and governor gave away hundreds of millions of dollars in tax cuts for the wealthy. They also give up hundreds of millions in federal money by refusing to expand Medicaid and extend unemployment benefits.
Now Pope and the Republican leadership are preaching realism to UNC and others, such as veteran teachers and state employees, who have gone through years of austerity only to see the Republicans tightening the flow of state funds as the economy improves.
Pope will submit the governor’s budget in May. It’s unlikely to include the funding needed to maintain a university system that is the state’s great accomplishment and its engine for further progress. But lawmakers will set the final funding. It’s time for those who prize the university system to press for an investment that will maintain its excellence.