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UNC system, legislature often find themselves at odds

There’s speculation that the UNC system has fewer allies in Raleigh than in the past.

Budget cuts to the UNC system totaling more than $500 million since 2011, the elimination of the N.C. Teaching Fellows program and years of faculty pay freezes have marched their way through the legislature while often sparking an outcry from UNC-system campuses. More recently, a bill was introduced which would require UNC-system professors to teach at least four classes a semester, which hasn’t sat well with faculty.

Politics are an inherent part of public universities in the state, as their governing board is appointed by the legislature. But faculty and other critics have condemned the Board of Governors for becoming more politicized — forcing the resignation of UNC-system President Tom Ross and closing three academic centers, including the UNC-CH Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity.

Fiscal austerity in the wake of the recession and the rise of Republican majorities in the state have changed the dynamic between higher education and the government, said Ferrel Guillory, a UNC journalism professor and director of the Program on Public Life.

“Under the Democratic majority, the legislature had really powerful friends,” said Guillory, who listed former Speaker of the N.C. House Joe Hackney and former N.C. Senate Pro Tempore Marc Basnight among UNC’s allies. “It isn’t that the University got everything that it wanted, but the University and those legislators were in sync in thinking about how the University contributed to the economic and civic life of the state.”

Unlike businesses and other special-interest groups, UNC-system schools are not allowed to hire outside lobbyists to gain lawmakers’ ears, though the system itself has a lobbyist.

Jonathan Kappler, director of state government relations for the UNC system, said the system can offer unity that would be hard to replicate with private lobbyists for each campus.

“We are one system, we have one budget request, one policy agenda,” he said. “Smaller institutions may not be in Raleigh as often, but they are getting the same information on what is happening there.”

Kappler said some schools in the UNC system naturally have advantages over others; larger schools have more alumni, and schools closer to Raleigh can spend more time in the Capitol.

Tensions between the UNC system and the legislature have increased because of Republicans’ efforts to streamline the public sector, Guillory said.

“A lot of friends of the University worry that the legislature doesn’t understand or respect the potency and nature of a strong public University,” he said. “The emphasis in Raleigh has shifted to less money overall, and most of the new money from the legislature has been directly tied to research and other things promising jobs.”

Public campuses, as well as other parts of the state government, can directly employ a liaison to act on their behalf. Private universities such as Duke and Wake Forest are allowed to hire lobbyists.

Gerry Cohen, who worked in the legislature for 37 years and retired in April 2014, became a lobbyist by the time the legislature was back in session in January. Cohen said there are similarities between lobbyists and liaisons.

“It’s basically advocacy,” he said. “One of the roles is to present information on behalf of a client and advocate for that point of view.”

Jennifer Willis, UNC-CH’s director of state relations and communications, worked in the legislature’s nonpartisan fiscal research division for seven years prior to coming to campus and said her work as a liaison is about building relationships.

“I can’t emphasize that enough. I tell folks, you never want your first visit to a member be when you are asking for something,” Willis said. “And not just with the member, you want to know their staff and be able to walk in and see someone at a moment’s notice instead of waiting a week just to get 10 minutes with someone.”

Cohen said the state’s 2007 ethics law helped level the field by banning gifts from lobbyists to legislators and tightening lobbyist registration regulations.

“There’s also a general gift ban. Everything is prohibited, with exception of very general dinners and social forums where they would invite the entire General Administration, and not just certain legislators,” he said.

Bob Phillips, a registered lobbyist and executive director of Common Cause N.C. — which lobbies to get money out of politics — said the 2007 ethics bill dialed back much of the shadier aspects of lobbying.

“It really did reel in the wining and dining that had been going on, and now there are very strict guidelines on what you can spend on as a private sector lobbyist,” Phillips said. “It has put public liaisons on a more-level playing field.”

Kappler said, in addition to lobbying ethics laws, liaisons are prohibited from contributing to candidates or political campaigns, unlike traditional lobbyists who are not restricted.

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“We are always concerned about having the resources we need to effectively meet our goals to educate the citizens of North Carolina and do so efficiently,” he said. “That requires some flexibility and creativity on our part.”

Liaison effectiveness can be difficult to measure, especially when UNC has fewer allies in Raleigh, Guillory said.

“Right now, the effectiveness of the University is influenced by the fact that the Republican majority is more into slimming the public sector,” he said. “Effectiveness these days may be limiting cuts — preserving ground rather than gaining ground.”