Today in North Carolina

Pope still on UNC soapbox

March 21, 2014 

— Back in 2000 or 2001, in a state House committee meeting, a lawmaker named Art Pope was waiving around a list and demanding that the Democrats in charge take note.

The list contained expenses paid by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill using “overhead receipts,” or additional money that accompanies research grants. The money is to help pay for indirect costs associated with the research, like building use and electricity.

Pope contended that overhead receipts acted as a hidden funding source for the universities, helping to defray costs that legislators thought they were paying for with state appropriations.

Among the items on the list were pizzas bought at Amante Gourmet Pizza. Pope made much of the fact that university officials would purchase gourmet pizza.

I remember the episode well because my mother, at the time, was a departmental administrator at the university.

Upon telling her about the goings-on at the legislature, she responded: “I bought some of those pizzas. What does he expect grad student candidates to eat? Air? It is just the place’s name. It’s pizza.”

She was well aware of how “overhead receipts” are moved around and had complaints of her own about how higher-ups drained some of the money from departmental accounts. But her conclusion was that legislators encouraged the funding game by cutting essential requirements and not delving into university spending to ensure that upper-level administrators had not ignored core functions.

More than a decade later, Pope is no longer a legislator. The retail magnate and funder of Republican and conservative causes is now budget director for Gov. Pat McCrory.

In a position to have more influence over the university budget, his pet peeve remains.

Pope recently rejected a budget proposal from the UNC system and its Board of Governors that called for a 4.6-percent increase for operations. He also criticized a request for $64 million for building repair and construction.

He called the requests “not realistic” and “a fantasy,” telling UNC officials to start over.

And he pointed out that the university system collected $228 million in overhead receipts in a recent budget year, questioning how much of that money had gone for building repair.

That the current political regime in Raleigh casts a suspicious eye on university spending is not surprising.

For a lot of years, the Marc Basnight-Tony Rand reign in the state Senate meant the UNC system got what it wanted.

Pope’s numbers, though, take little note of how tough recent times have been for the universities.

The state appropriation for higher education dropped in real, year-over-year spending in the 2011-12 fiscal year. In the two years since, it has risen by less than 2 percent.

The hubbub raised also ignores something else: Pope might have more influence over the UNC budget now than as a minority-party legislator in 2000; but he still doesn’t have as much influence as those majority-party legislators down the street, who enjoy playing trash-can basketball with governor’s budget proposals.

Scott Mooneyham is a syndicated columnist who writes about state government and politics.

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