One supposes that it’s at least conceivable there could be merit to the idea of moving the headquarters of the 16-campus UNC System from the place it’s always been – Chapel Hill – to the state capital in Raleigh.
But here’s another obvious fact about such an ambitious plan: ramming it through without debate and without consulting the system’s Board of Governors would be a brazen and indefensible act.
That’s precisely, however, what the Republican legislators who rule the North Carolina General Assembly did recently.
As Policy Watch journalist Joe Killian reported last week, a special section in the new state budget adopted without public debate appropriates $15 million toward leasing space in Raleigh over the next four years. As Killian also reported:
It also lays out plans and provides funding for a future $180 million downtown Education Campus to include the Department of Commerce, Department of Public Instruction, Community Colleges System and UNC System offices.
The bill proposes building the new campus at 116 W. Jones St., where the state’s Department of Administration now resides. That department would be relocated to a newly proposed state executive headquarters.”
Now consider that the multi-million-dollar scheme was sprung at a time when the UNC System is struggling to hang on to underpaid faculty members and to keep tuition affordable; the move looks not just misguided and wasteful but downright outrageous and corrupt.
As Killian also reported:
At current costs, that $15 million could fully fund a four-year college education — including in-state tuition, fees, books, room and board — for approximately 153 in-state students at UNC-Chapel Hill.”
Even arch-conservative funder and Board of Governors member Art Pope has derided the plan as unnecessary and not properly vetted, saying “I certainly don’t want to hear about a tuition increase when we’re spending $15 million unnecessarily.”
Unfortunately, after a decade of mostly unchecked power, the UNC scheme is sadly indicative of how GOP legislative leaders roll these days.
Whether they are implementing policy changes (like the UNC move) that will alter the future of one of the state’s most important public structures and institutions, overhauling the state’s tax system, amending the state constitution, or merely handing out cash to politically connected nonprofits and businesses, in 2022, the North Carolina General Assembly has abandoned almost any pretense of open debate and public input from experts.
Take the passage of the budget itself.
Though it was drafted behind closed doors and chock-full of items that had never been previously debated, because it was brought to lawmakers as a “conference report” – i.e., an iteration of a bill that’s supposed to represent a compromise between earlier versions passed by the House and the Senate – the budget bill could not be amended. Instead, lawmakers were forced to cast a single, “yes or no” vote.
Proposals to remove individual controversial items – like the UNC move, the $15 million gift to the Atlantic Coast Conference, the latest expansion of the state’s costly and unaccountable school vouchers scheme, and the handing of big public dollars to “crisis pregnancy centers (i.e., religion-based nonprofits masquerading as healthcare providers) – were not allowed under legislative rules.
One of the great ironies in all of this is that Republicans came to power at the start of the last decade promising to bring reform and transparency to the Legislative Building. Supposedly motivated by a desire to respond to the corruption symbolized by former Democratic House Speaker Jim Black’s bribery scandal (never mind that Black’s Democratic successor, former House Speaker Joe Hackney, had already led the General Assembly in making great strides in this regard) GOP leaders promised a rebirth of honesty and efficiency and ascended to power touting a much-ballyhooed pledge to run “government like a business.”
That said, as we should have learned from the career of a certain former president, there are a lot of ways to run a business that do not involve honesty, transparency, efficiency or success.
As a long list of Donald Trump enterprises made painfully clear down through the years, “business” can also involve failing to pay contractors, discriminating against would be customers because of their race, failing to disclose information to federal stock regulators, playing footsie with organized crime, misusing charitable donations, running a university that treats its students like marks, misusing funds donated for political campaigns, hiring countless shady characters, and lying about all of it.
Now add to this that almost two-thirds of American businesses ultimately fail within their first 10 years of operation and maybe the GOP pledge back in 2011 wasn’t so off-base.
The bottom line: Republican legislators have now dominated the North Carolina General Assembly for going on 12 years, but as the recent heavy-handed move of the UNC system makes clear yet again, they may be running government like a business, but, in this case, that’s nothing to brag about.