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The Daily Tar Heel

Students --Follow Lead Of Mayors

After being told once again to trim the system's budget, leaders are searching for ways to lobby state officials to reverse the order and return more than $100 million to public universities.

Perhaps they should start paying attention to local government officials.

Gov. Mike Easley announced Wednesday during a closed meeting with 27 mayors across the state that he will work to return $209 million in payments due to city and county governments this year if state revenue picks up over the next few months.

Easley seized the funds last week in an effort to ease the state's projected $900 million shortfall.

But mayors and county government officials quickly united to demand that Easley return the funds.

They argued that local governments should not be held accountable for the fiscal woes of the state.

Bold statement. Now if only the words were tweaked a little bit.

Try this: higher education in North Carolina should not be held accountable for the fiscal woes of the state.

For the second time in a year, UNC-system officials are looking for ways to trim the system's operating budget at Easley's request.

The situation has sparked debate about whether the state is upholding its duty to provide for higher education as mandated by the North Carolina Constitution.

Some student leaders argue that state legislators have neglected their duty to properly fund education in order to address other concerns, namely those of interest to campaign donors.

On Tuesday, UNC-Chapel Hill students overwhelmingly approved a referendum stating just that.

Close to 6,000 students voted to ask legislators to pass "meaningful campaign finance reform" in upcoming legislative sessions.

The referendum stated that large campaign contributions give donors an unfair amount of political influence.

But if that is the case, UNC-system leaders should have plenty of clout in the N.C. General Assembly.

The Durham Herald-Sun reported Monday that Democracy South, a Carrboro-based political watchdog group, found that members of the UNC-system Board of Governors contributed more than $400,000 to state politicians from 1995 to 2000.

BOG chairman Ben Ruffin told the Herald-Sun that he believes the campaign contributions help board members gain access to state legislators.

"Politicians appreciate people who help them in these expensive campaigns," Ruffin told the paper.

Nevertheless, the tactic seems to have failed since the UNC system is once again reverting funds to the state.

It is time for UNC-system leaders to change their approach in dealing with the General Assembly.

Instead of trying to gain influence through contributing money, they should make use of the state's greatest source of political influence: voters.

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N.C. residents deserve to have a voice in determining how the legislature funds public higher education.

And that's where students come in.

Who else but students know first-hand what impact cuts to the UNC system have on university services?

Students must take an active role in voicing their concerns about reduced funds for the UNC system and bring those sentiments to the public.

The "Keep N.C. Educated" campaign is a good start.

The UNC-system Association of Student Governments kicked off the campaign Wednesday. The effort aims to raise awareness about proposed tuition increases.

ASG leaders also hope to travel across the state and encourage voters to lobby legislators to increase funding for the UNC system.

But for the campaign to be successful, students from across the state must step up to the plate and become involved.

The time has come for students to be assertive and demand that higher education not suffer as the result of a poor state economy.

The tactic seems to have worked for city and county governments. Why shouldn't it work for the UNC system?

Columnist April Bethea can be reached at adbethea@email.unc.edu.

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