College generic graduates walking

(I've updated this blog post twice below.)

We’re at the stage of the current legislative session known as budget reconciliation, when House and Senate folks merge their competing versions of the state budget and send it on the governor. Think of it as figure 8 racing, but with amendments. 

The House and Senate versions of the budget do agree on a few things related to North Carolina’s colleges and universities. They also differ on a bunch of others.

Let’s dig in, shall we?

New construction: The House has come around to the Senate’s way of thinking on new construction. (The House originally backed a bond issue; Senate leaders want to pay as you go.) But the two chambers are proposing different projects.

Higher ed — specifically the UNC System — fares better under the House budget, which would spend $588.5 million on nine projects. The biggest is a new $215 million med school building for East Carolina University. Second biggest is $84 million worth of improvements to UNCG’s Jackson Library, something that UNCG really, really wants. UNC System schools would split another $375 million for repairs and smaller renovations. There’s no money for community colleges.

The Senate plan, meanwhile, would set aside $157.1 million for nine projects at six UNC System schools, none in the Triad. There’s no money for university renovations. (Technically, it’s mentioned, but I can’t find an actual dollar amount in the Senate budget.) Also under the Senate plan, all N.C. community colleges would split $500 million, with GTCC and other large schools getting $20 million apiece and other smaller schools getting lesser amounts.

Four UNC System projects are included in both budget plans, which suggests they have a decent (but not ironclad because this is the legislature after all) chance of getting approved. These projects are a new steam plant at Western Carolina; renovations of the Lee Biology Building at N.C. Central; a new STEM building at N.C. State; and more money for repairs to UNC-Wilmington’s main science building, which was wrecked by Hurricane Florence. The House budget includes $8 million for UNCW's Dobo Hall; the Senate plan has $10 million.

Miles Lackey, UNCW's vice president for business affairs, told me Tuesday that the state money would cover repair costs above and beyond the school's insurance coverage. He also told me that the project — repairs (which includes bringing much of Dobo up to current building codes), new furniture and equipment and temporary science labs — will cost somewhere north of $50 million. The new and improved science building is on schedule to reopen in fall 2020. Lackey said it'll be "a much better and more (storm-)resistant structure."

An Umstead Act exemption for N.C. A&T: A&T has talked about making an A&T-branded ice cream and other dairy products after it expands its Ag complex out on McConnell Road. The state’s Umstead Act prevents state agencies from competing with the private sector, so the Senate budget would give A&T an exemption from the act. It'll be the same carve-out that N.C. State has so it can make and sell Howling Cow ice cream.

Expanded A&T doctoral programs: A&T has received $2.5 million over the past two years to hire more faculty for its doctoral programs. The Senate budget would up that amount to $7.5 million annually. This is a top priority for A&T Chancellor Harold Martin. 

New scholarships: There are a bunch.

• Both budget plans have $250,000 for the new NC Patriot Star Family Scholarship, which would provide college scholarships to spouses and children of current and former Armed Forces members who were killed or gravely injured during their service.

• The House budget would create the High Achieving Tuition Scholarship that would cover tuition for four semesters at an N.C. community college for students coming out of high school with at least a 3.5 GPA.

• The House budget also would set up a new scholarship for N.C. School of Science and Mathematics students. NCSSM graduates who go onto a UNC System school would have their tuition covered for their freshman year.

• Both budget plans would expand the eligibility for the Education Lottery Scholarship. Currently eligible students are those whose Expected Family Contribution on the FAFSA is $5,000. Both budget plans would raise the threshold to $6,000.

Pay raises: The House budget would give raises of the greater of 1 percent or $500 to staff members (not faculty or exempt administrators) at UNC System schools. The Senate plan leaves the specifics of any pay raises up to the UNC Board of Governors. Both budgets would provide money for pay raises for community college employees but leaves the details of who gets what to the system office. 

N.C. Teaching Fellows: Both chambers want to raise the number of N.C. Teaching Fellows sites to eight and ensure "a diverse selection" of public and private universities." The five current N.C. Teaching Fellows schools are Elon, Meredith, N.C. State, UNC-Chapel Hill and UNC-Charlotte. None of those schools are in eastern or western North Carolina, and none are HBCUs or minority-serving institutions.

The Teaching Fellows program provides forgivable education loans to prospective teachers in STEM and special ed. The program awarded its first scholarships last fall.

Lab schools: Both budget plans would extend the deadline to open lab schools operated by UNC System schools.* The original legislature called for nine to be open by this fall. The new House and Senate plans call for six to be open by fall 2020 and three more to open by fall 2021.

Lab schools are parts of or entire public schools run by universities. There are now five lab schools with a sixth (UNC-Charlotte) on the way. One of the five is the Moss Street Partnership School, an elementary school in Reidsville run by UNCG.

A budget cut for UNC-Chapel Hill: The Senate plan would cut funding to UNC-Chapel Hill by $14.1 million (in 2019-20) and $14.4 million the year after. UNC-CH would then have to fill in this budget hole with research dollars.

Universities that conduct federally funded research get facilities and administrative grants — also called “overhead grants” and “indirect costs” — that cover a portion of the cost of actually doing the scientific research. Schools typically spend the money on buildings, equipment and salaries, among other things. Critics have charged for years that this extra money is little more than a giant slush fund.

UNC-CH brings in more research dollars ($879 million in 2017-18) and therefore more F&A money ($172 million in 2016-17) than all of the other UNC System schools combined. So it's probably no surprise that it’s the only school facing an F&A diversion in the Senate budget plan.

This isn’t a new issue in North Carolina or nationally. Google coughed up this 1992 Chronicle story about overhead receipts involving then-Gov. Jim Martin. (He wanted the state to keep a bigger percentage of F&A money.) More recently, the Trump administration has honed in on research spending and overhead receipts.

Summer school: The House budget would spend $35 million annually to cut the price of summer school, which is a little more expensive than fall and spring semester tuition. The House budget report says higher summer school enrollment will "increase facility utilization, student persistence and degree completion rates and reduce time-to-degree."

ECU's medical school: The Senate has waded into the dispute between East Carolina University (backed by the UNC System) and Vidant Health, which runs the hospital used by ECU's medical school. The Senate budget would cut the Medicaid reimbursement to Vidant Medical Center in Greenville by $35 million. Hospital officials aren't happy. The N&O has much more on the proposed budget cut.

Elsewhere in Raleigh:

• Gov. Roy Cooper already has signed a bill that will make it easier for college students to use school-issued IDs to vote. I wrote about that issue back in March. The new law allows selfies to be used at ID pictures and reduces the number of data schools must check to confirm a student's identity. N.C. colleges and universities now have until Nov. 1 to have their student IDs approved for use as voter ID.

• A Senate bill that would repeal the much-disliked tuition surcharge at UNC schools has made its way to the House. Current state law imposes a 50 percent tuition surcharge on students who rack up more than 140 credit hours to get a bachelor’s degree. That’s apparently not hard to do if you change your major and/or quit and come back to school once or twice.

• The House bill that would let state universities sell beer and wine at football stadiums, basketball arenas and other athletic facilities is almost done. It's on the House calendar for this afternoon for what should be the final vote. Then it's off to the governor. If you look carefully, you can see the carve-out specifically for Winston-Salem State. (Hint: It's the only UNC school that shares its football stadium with a quarter-mile NASCAR track.)

Here are two final notes before I close out this blog post.

First: These are some of the highlights of interest to me and presumably to you. If you're interested in more arcane matters such as potential changes to the enrollment funding formula (Senate) and to carryforward funds (House), you should check both budget plans yourself.

These are the four documents I referred to in the post above: the House budget, the House budget reportthe Senate budget and the Senate budget report. The actual budget plans generally show intent; the budget reports include most of the dollar amounts. You have to read them side-by-side to get a better sense of what’s going on. The actual budget bill is House Bill 966.

Second: There's no telling when this reconciliation process will end and North Carolina will have a new budget for the next two fiscal years. The budget is due June 30, but the fact that there's a Democrat in the governor's office and the GOP no longer holds a veto-proof majority means that some amount of wrangling remains to be done.

WRAL reported late Tuesday that senators and Cooper's staff are sniping at each other over Medicaid expansion (which is what the governor wants) and a business tax cut (which the GOP wants). Here's a look at some other potential sticking points from the N&O. The AP has more on the Medicaid expansion debate.

Update, 4:25 p.m. Wednesday: House Bill 389 — the bill that would let UNC System schools sell beer and wine at ballgames — just cleared the House this afternoon. House Majority Leader (and bill sponsor) John Bell celebrated on Twitter with a couple of relevant emojis:

Update, 1:15 p.m. Thursday: I missed one (of course). The Senate budget plan includes nearly $2.3 million for four N.C. community colleges with a "multi-campus center" designation. GTCC's Aviation Campus and Forsyth Tech's Transportation Technology Center are two of the four. GTCC's share would be about $600,000. MCCs sometimes get extra funding to cover the administrative costs of having a campus apart from the main college campus.

* Update, June 26: I misread the lab school provision and have corrected it above.

Have something to say about the blog post above? Email me at john.newsom@greensboro.com. You can also follow me on Twitter at @JohnNewsomNR.

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