Opinion: Clarion Call

Call. 65: University Stewardship Questioned

While Republican lawmakers say they will support the $3.1 billion bond proposal for the UNC campuses, many say they have misgivings about the way the state’s public universities are managed. Some are calling for accountability measures.

“What assurances are university leaders giving the people of this state that their money will be spent wisely?” asked Sen. Virginia Foxx, R-Watauga. “To my knowledge, there still hasn’t been an answer to that question.”

“There has been a management problem and no one disagrees with that,” said Sen. Patrick Ballentine, R-New Hanover. “If we can’t craft a bill that shows we are going to make change, then it won’t pass.” Ballentine added that an accountability measure would be essential before the proposal is put to a voter referendum.

In a closed meeting on Wednesday, state legislators and UNC leaders tentatively agreed to a $3.1 billion bond proposal that will more than double the state’s debt and lead to future tax increases, according to a Spotlight released this week by the John Locke Foundation. Noticeably missing from the proposal, Republican leaders say, is a provision to hold universities accountable for spending.

Representatives George Holmes, R-Yadkin, Lyons Gray, R-Forsyth, and Edwin McMahan, R-Mecklenburg, want to change that. They want to add a provision to the bond legislation that establishes an oversight committee to monitor university spending. McMahan wants the committee to investigate claims that the money reserved for maintenance (known as the Repair and Renovation Fund) is inadequate.

Leaders considered the idea during Wednesday’s closed meetings, and a bill should be drafted by next week. But McMahan has told Clarion Call that Democratic leaders do not like the suggestion. Sen. Marc Basnight, D-Dare, and Rep. Jim Black, D-Mecklenburg, want the issue put to a subcommittee. Republican leaders would like something independent of the campuses and legislature, while Democratic leaders want the state construction office involved.

GOP leaders say they want better management and accountability in the UNC system, but these items have been noticeably absent in the crafting of the $3.1 billion bond proposal. Some lawmakers have questioned spending money for such things as “comprehensive modernization.”

“What is comprehensive modernization?” asked Ballentine. Ballentine said he would work to make sure that taxes are not raised. “The only assurance I have [that taxes won’t be raised] is that we are going to do everything we can to make sure they don’t,” he said, adding that the proposal could be further tweaked.

“Are we going to put the state in a bind for pork and fluff?” asked Sen. Foxx “or for essential [spending]? University leaders are not coming to us with the needs. They are asking ‘How much can we get?'”

The UNC Board of Governors signed off on the proposal at Friday’s board meeting, but cautioned that much work remains to be done. “We all need to support this list and work for the pasing of these bonds,” Bradley Wilson, Chairman of the Budget and Finance Committee told members of his committee, adding that board members must committ the next five months to campaigning for the bond’s passage in a voter referendum.

UNC President Molly Broad said she was encouraged by the “healthy discussion” in the legislature regarding greater accountability and oversight.

“We welcome that,” said said, adding that the board might also consider new accountability measures.