Perhaps the most important speech of North Carolinas new Republican era was made nearly three years ago by GOP U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, arguably the states leading political voice of business.
Burr said that while North Carolina had the highest corporate and income taxes in the South since slashed by the legislature it was still winning most of the corporate and industrial recruiting battles with its neighbors.
The main reason, Burr said, was the states educational system, particularly its universities and community colleges.
When an employer looks at an investment in North Carolina, they are not looking at the return next year, Burr told a meeting of the National Federation of Independent Business at Raleighs Cardinal Club. They are looking at the return 30 years from now. They need a future workforce that has skills and knowledge.
Higher education in the state, particularly the University of North Carolina system, has suffered a huge erosion in financial support, starting with tight budgets during the recession, when the Democrats were in control. The UNC systems annual budget has dropped from $2.7 billion in 2008-09 to $2.5 billion this year, while adding 9,000 students.
North Carolina has one of the oldest university systems in the country. But it did not become one of the nations premier systems until the 1920s, when the states business community used its political muscle to convince the legislature to pour money into the consolidated university system. These bankers, textile magnates, lawyers, furniture executives and newspaper publishers saw it as a tool to modernize a poor, rural state.
These were men of the world and men of commerce they were mostly men who understood the importance of such things. As the years went by, many were products of the UNC system.
Today, the political connections between the UNC system and Raleigh have weakened. Many of the states current leaders are not products of the UNC system. And in this age of corporate mergers and consolidations, many business leaders are no longer Tar Heel natives.
Push-back on cuts
Among the states top political leadership, the most prominent UNC graduate is Art Pope, the governors budget director and a major GOP financier. Pope has pushed the university to cut costs, but there are indications that other Republicans have different ideas.
UNC President Tom Ross has praised the House and Senate budget as responsible, after criticizing cuts proposed by Gov. Pat McCrory.
Fred Eshelman, a Wilmington pharmaceutical executive who like Pope is a major GOP donor, told The N&Os Jane Stancill that its time to stop the bleeding.
You can say whatever you want to about the university system, and theres waste and you dont like their politics, said Eshelman, a member of the UNC Board of Governors who gave $20 million to the UNC pharmacy school. It doesnt change the fact that, in my view, its the biggest economic engine we have in this state. And our state is known for this system.
The Research Triangle Park, one of the states major industrial engines, would have been impossible without the universities. So would such successful businesses as SAS and Quintiles, which were started by local professors.
It took several generations of North Carolinians in a sustained and impressive act of political will and discipline to build the UNC system into what it is today. It is not something to be discarded lightly because of the latest political fads.
Christensen: 919-829-4532 or firstname.lastname@example.org