UNC’s five-step process to carp about budget ‘cuts’

RALEIGH — Here we go again. North Carolina’s economy is still struggling. Surprising, isn’t it, as ours was the only state to enact large tax increases three straight years, from 2001 to 2003 — that is, every year since voters passed the $3.1 billion higher education bond referendum in 2000 after being assured by proponents there wouldn’t be tax increases. It seems this combination of tax hikes and voter-mandated spending increases is actually helping to extend our economic slowdown. Economists are floored.

For the UNC system, a struggling economy means budget cuts. So we will be told, repeatedly. But this is by now a familiar process. It has five steps.

Step One: UNC says it faces budget cuts. In homes and businesses, the term “budget cut” means essentially we have less money to spend now than we used to. Not so for UNC. For UNC “budget cut” means we’re getting a smaller increase in spending than we expected.

UNC has an online “Advocacy Notebook” at the system website (http://www.northcarolina.edu), where it lists its legislative priorities for prospective UNC advocates. On its main fact sheet for advocates last year, “Summary of 2003-04 Budget Conference Priorities,” the top item was “Eliminate cuts to the University’s continuation budget.” The “cuts” were proposed by the House, which was a “$21 million (60%) reduction in continuation budget increases” (emphasis added).

Step Two: UNC says it has nothing left to cut except essentials. Here is the hook, which requires believing that UNC schools have shed all excess baggage and are down to only essential services. Last year, for instance, UNC officials made out that they were down to deciding between their Xerox machines and their telephones. This year, if a March 15 article in The Daily Tar Heel (“System budget cuts may affect classes”) provides indication, the schools would also have to drop class offerings.

Step Three: The media eagerly repeat the warning, without bothering to investigate the UNC claim of being down to essentials. For example, in early August 2003 the Durham Herald-Sun ran an article (also picked up by The Charlotte Observer) entitled “Belt-tightening strains basic UNC services” which opened, “Decades from now, students of history at UNC may have some trouble doing research dating back to 2002 or 2003.” Nowhere in the article, which also warned of the impending Xerox vs. phones decision, could be found the phrase “Get a load of this” or anything approaching a modicum of skepticism.

Step Four: Meanwhile, the UNC budget increases. Thus, as John Hood showed in a John Locke Foundation Spotlight research paper (online at www.johnlocke.org/spotlights/2003063078.html), the legislature granted small increases to UNC’s budget for 2003-04 and 2004-05, for a total of $54 million in 2004-05 than 2002-03. Hood’s numbers were from the General Fund, and did not include the additional money from higher-education bond sales.

Step Five: UNC complains that it cannot withstand another budget cut like that. This step is made despite Step Four, because all UNC mouthpieces understand that in the realm of politics, repetition can produce “reality.” For example, the UNC Advocacy Notebook’s top “Talking Point” for 2003 opens, “While we all must participate in solving North Carolina’s fiscal problems, the University has shouldered a significant share of budget reductions required to balance the state budget.”

Expect the same this year. As Chuck Hawkins, senior associate vice chancellor for financial services at East Carolina University, told the DTH, “Cuts have been deep over the last few years.”

Hawkins also said, “We’ve already taken out everything we could out of nonacademics.” That is because Step Five not only completes one year’s cycle of whining (in this case, 2003), it allows for a smooth transition to start the cycle anew the next year (2004).