Opinion: Clarion Call

Call. 64: UNC-TV Needs $65 Million, Committee Recommends Bond Vote

On Wednesday, less than ten hours before UNC-TV aired a documentary showcasing UNC’s facilities needs, UNC-TV director and general manager Tom Howe told the Joint Select Committee on Higher Education Facilities Needs that UNC-TV needs $65 million in state money to meet a federal mandate.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has ordered that all television stations in the United States broadcast a digital signal by May 2003, explained Howe. Failure to meet the deadline will result in loss of the digital broadcasting license. Thus, UNC-TV needs to convert 11 transmitters and its studio equipment to digital technology before the deadline to continue its operations.

The conversion would cost about $64.5 million over three years, and UNC-TV is asking the state to pay the full amount. UNC-TV cannot raise the necessary funds on its own, said Howe, and the station must convert to maintain broad viewership. A video presented yesterday to committee members conveyed a bleak either/or situation should the General Assembly decide not to fund the conversion. UNC-TV either converts and keeps pace with the changing times, the video suggested, or decides not to make the switch and, thus, falls further behind. “This is the only North Carolina television available to many households in North Carolina,” said Sen. Howard Lee (D-Orange).

During the last session of the General Assembly, the $65 million for UNC-TV was included in a $6 million bond that passed the Senate, but was later pared down and ultimately rejected by the House for failing to contain a voter referendum. The inclusion of $65 million for UNC-TV was, at that time, not a point of contention. This time, however, the idea of UNC-TV advertising for its own needs and the needs of UNC — of which the television station is a part — raised eyebrows.

“The documentary…deals with just the facilities need on UNC’s 16 campuses while ignoring [funding for] such things as UNC-TV, the N.C. Arboretum and the N.C. Botanical Gardens,” the News & Record of Greensboro wrote about the video.

“You have to admit,” Howe was quoted in the article as saying, “the university system won’t be using this as a recruiting film.”

On Tuesday, the committee approved a motion to submit an interim report to the General Assembly on UNC’s facilities needs. Committee members have spent the last few months touring UNC campuses, identifying those needs. The report is expected to address the immediate short and long-term needs of the system campuses, estimating them at around $3 billion.

“You went, you saw, and hopefully you are convinced of the needs of our institutions of higher education,” said State Treasurer Harlan Boyles, recapping the committee’s work. “It’s simply a matter of priorities.”

Boyles said he was confident that the needs of UNC could be met without raising taxes and identified three options for addressing the needs: to look to the current budget, to consider long-term general obligation bonds payable from taxable income, and to reconsider issues from the 1999 legislative session.

“When you look at it all in balance, there is no question that a good investment will pay for itself…” Boyles said. But Boyles warned against future poor planning for the needs of state universities and recommended new ways for funding higher education.

“As you look at long-term solutions, you might consider creating an education fund,” Boyles said. He explained that university needs must compete with too many other important state needs.

The General Assembly should identify programs it wants to finance and the resources that will be used to finance those programs, he added. If money were taken from the individual income tax and went directly to education, for example, it would lead to more accountability. “If we could do this, we would satisfy a lot of questions as to what we do with the money we receive,” said Boyles. “Our method of budgeting is our Achilles’ heel… we cannot tell you the programs we underwrite.”

The committee will likely take action on the bond early during the 2000 legislative session, which convenes next week.