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UNC system ups lobbying efforts in face of budget cuts

With the Republican-led General Assembly aiming to deepen cuts outlined in Gov. Bev Perdue’s budget proposal, UNC-system officials plan to intensify their lobbying efforts.

The system’s lobbyists are regularly meeting with legislators and their staffs to emphasize the statewide economic benefits of universities in the form of research at campuses that results in the generation of new businesses.

But persuading legislators to maintain current funding levels requires a complex mix of strategies, said Anita Watkins, vice president for government relations with the UNC system.

Watkins said the system wants legislators to focus on the long-term benefits of an educated workforce rather than measures to alleviate the state’s short-term economic crisis.

But Republican legislators continue to stress that reductions be made from the University system’s budget to cope with a state budget shortfall of at least $2.4 billion.

Rep. Hugh Blackwell, R-Burke, co-chairman of the N.C. House appropriations subcommittee on education, said raising taxes to leave higher education funding untouched is not an option in a state with an unemployment rate of 9.9 percent.

“We cannot consistently spend whatever educators ask us to spend without regard to the economic circumstances of taxpayers that are paying the bills,” Blackwell said.

He said legislators will continue to meet with campus representatives to discuss particular funding items.

“They would like as much money as possible with as few strings attached and as many options as they can get,” he said about UNC-system lobbyists. Blackwell added he is willing to consider a continuation of funding for some items depending on the rationale provided by the administrators.

Watkins said committees might propose cuts as high as 12 percent from the UNC-system budget, but nothing definitive has been determined by legislators.

The University system has already endured $620 million in cuts in the past four years, including the elimination of more than 900 administrative positions.

“Twelve percent would be an extraordinarily difficult cut for the universities to absorb,” Watkins said.

The 12 percent cut would be an increase from Perdue’s budget proposal last month, which included a 9.5 percent reduction in operational funding for the UNC system. State House and Senate committees have been reviewing the funding reductions proposed by Perdue and will assess where to make steeper cuts in the coming weeks.

Democratic legislators have proposed avoiding additional cuts by extending a one-cent sales tax increase, an idea opposed by the Republican majority.

“We just disagree on the target and finding revenue to offset some of the cuts,” said Rep. Rick Glazier, D-Cumberland, a minority member of the committee. Glazier said he also values meetings with student leaders as a form of “mutual education” when discussing specific budgetary items for the system.

The UNC Association of Student Governments, composed of student representatives from the UNC system’s 17 institutions, has been organizing student lobbying days with legislators. But the organization’s effectiveness has recently been scrutinized as the state continues to cut more from the system’s budget each year.

Josh Cotton, vice president of legislative and public affairs for ASG, said the association needs to develop a more efficient use of its resources. UNC-system students fund the association with a $1 annual fee.

He said ASG delegates must work with other advocacy groups to form relationships with legislators.

“We need to come up with a different strategy with continuous interaction, not just groups of people twiddling their thumbs and ultimately just being blown off.”

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