After a special legislative commission spent months examining the treatment of college athletes, state lawmakers introduced legislation early this session that included free legal assistance, better health care and more academic help.
But the bill also contained an in-state tuition break that could save college booster clubs millions of dollars that was never discussed.
The college athlete protections bill never got a hearing in committee, giving it little chance to become law. But last week, the tuition break was put on a fast track in the House via an unrelated bill that was gutted and replaced by the tuition language. It was up for a House floor vote Wednesday, but was kicked back to a committee after some lawmakers objected to the tuition break and the way it raced through the chamber.
The provision would allow out-of-state athletes to pay in-state rates for tuition at UNC System schools for scholarship purposes — saving millions for the booster clubs and sports programs that fund those scholarships.
At UNC-Chapel Hill, in-state tuition for the 2018-19 academic year was $9,018, compared to $36,000 for out-of-state students.
Jay Allred of Forsyth County, whose daughter was injured while a member of East Carolina University’s golf team, saw the resuscitation of the tuition break as a slap in the face to college athletes and those who are trying to help them.
“It doesn’t do anything for the health and welfare of the student-athletes,” said Allred, who was a driver of the protections bill. “It’s a real insult to the people who served and put a lot of time on this commission.”
The tuition break dates back to 2005 when it was put into the state budget over opposition from UNC leaders who found that it limited slots available for non-scholarship out-of-state students who pay significantly higher tuition rates. The tuition break was ultimately repealed in 2010 to address budget shortfalls.
Current law allows UNC System boards of trustees to use in-state tuition for certain non-athletic scholarships, but those exemptions can’t result in more out-of-state students than the universities are allowed to enroll.
The tuition break first appeared back in March in Senate Bill 335, which would have offered various benefits to college athletes. Most of that bill featured recommendations from the Legislative Commission on the Fair Treatment of College Student-Athletes, but the tuition proposal didn’t come from the commission. SB 335 never got a committee hearing.
Instead, a House committee gutted a different measure, Senate Bill 144, that previously addressed Medicaid payments for prepaid health plans, and inserted the tuition provision. It sailed through the House Rules Committee with virtually no discussion after Rep. Jason Saine, a Lincoln County Republican, briefly explained the bill.
On Wednesday, Rep. George Cleveland, an Onslow County Republican, made a motion on the House floor to have the bill sent to the Appropriations Committee for a hearing. “I believe the bill needs a hearing in a substantial committee,” Cleveland said.
Cleveland was backed by Guilford County Reps. Pricey Harrison, a Democrat, and Jon Hardister, a Republican, who both said the bill deserved debate in another committee. Deputy Majority Leader Rep. Brenden Jones, a Columbus County Republican, was the only House member to speak against the motion on the floor — saying that the UNC System schools had asked for it and that prior to the recession the state had allowed it.
A report, or fiscal note, estimating the tuition break’s financial impact to the state hasn’t been released. Harrison, on Tuesday night, tweeted that it would be close to $17 million of taxpayer funds that would “subsidize UNC System Booster clubs.”
Said Rep. Larry Yarborough, a Person County Republican: “when you give an out-of-state student in-state tuition, that is the state taxpayer subsidizing that tuition.” He added that the General Assembly “might as well give the money directly to the universities without tying it to athletics.”
House Speaker Tim Moore said Cleveland’s motion was withdrawn, but ultimately the bill was moved to the Appropriations Committee for further consideration.