Caveat emptor, suckers

Looks like yet another talking point used to sell us on the $3.1 billion bond referendum for higher education in 2000 could turn out to be a big fat whopper. Can anyone guess which one that could be?

While you’re thinking, let’s review all the others:

• Remember the biggie? “THE BOND ISSUE WOULD NOT REQUIRE AN INCREASE IN TAXES” — that’s from literature published by the Office of Government Relations at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “State Treasurer Harlan Boyles has repeatedly said that North Carolina won’t need to raise taxes to repay the bonds” — that’s from the Fayetteville Observer Oct. 8, 2000. The campaign for the bond referendum, “North Carolinians for Educational Opportunity” (to distinguish themselves for all those North Carolinians against educational opportunity, you know), listed this among its “Frequently Asked Questions”: “Q: Will this mean a state tax increase? A: No. State Treasurer Harlan Boyles says North Carolina does not need to raise state taxes to pay off the bonds.” The News & Observer reported Oct. 15, 2000, that “J.B. Milliken, vice president for public affairs for the UNC system, … noted that State Treasurer Harlan Boyles has said the additional debt will not lead to a tax increase.” On Nov. 2, 2000, N.C. Community College Faculty Association president Jim Davies wrote in the N&O: “passing the bonds will raise taxes. That is simply not true.”

So ever since 2000, from 2001 on, the state has seen tax increase after tax increase. The turnaround was so dramatic, in fact, that by 2003 a report by the John Locke Foundation discovered that “only three states — New Jersey, Indiana, and Tennessee — had enacted larger tax increases per person than North Carolina in 2001 or 2002,” that only N.J. and N.C. had “enacted major tax increases in both years,” and that “only North Carolina is likely to enact another major tax increase in 2003.” It’s 2005 now, and the beat’s gone on, doodedoo’ndoo.

So much for that promise. But how’s this for fine print? Here’s what Boyles actually said, in an Aug. 17, 2000, letter to Governors Hunt, Martin, Holshouser and Scott (emphasis added): “I want to state clearly that with a continuation of responsible budgetary practices and economic growth we will not have to raise taxes to repay the moneys borrowed.” Factually correct, but about as applicable in N.C. as saying With the proper acceleration, braking and steering, even a baby can drive a Humvee down I-40 at rush hour without creating vehicular mayhem.

• Then there was the “Building Crisis” aspect, to use the title of the WUNC-TV sob-umentary that aired throughout 2000. You’ll recall, no doubt, that “Campuses throughout the University of North Carolina system daily hold classes in outmoded, deteriorating, potentially dangerous buildings,” and the “crowded classrooms, dilapidated buildings, poor ventilation, inadequate storage space, exposed lead paint, leaky roofs, moldy walls, and other problems that campuses face.” (Quotations are from NCSU’s April 28, 2000 Bulletin Online.) It was crucial to fix those things up immediately — as the NCFEO’s FAQ site put it, “We cannot expect to train scientists and computer technicians for the next century in dilapidated labs with outmoded equipment!”

So once the bonds were passed, universities said Never mind; we can expect to train scientists and computer technicians in dilapidated labs for a little while longer ’cause look at all the new stuff we can build right now! By March 2002, according to research by Pope Center for Higher Education Policy director George Leef (Inquiry No. 13, June 18, 2002), only 16 of the 195 repair and renovations projects included in the bond legislation were under construction (that’s eight percent). Nearly half (48 percent) were not even in the design stage. On the other hand, fully a quarter of the 103 projects for new construction were underway, and only a quarter (27.5 percent) were not in the design stage.

• Oh, but not only could the state afford to put itself in more debt; it really couldn’t afford not to do so! Davies again: “passing the bonds will increase North Carolina’s debt to an unacceptable level. Once again the argument is simply untrue.” NCFEO’s FAQs: “Even with the bonds, North Carolina will continue to have one of the lowest debt loads in the nation.” Boyles, again: “the bond rating agencies consider the condition of our colleges and universities when determining a credit rating for our State. Continued deterioration” — *kaff!kaff!* — “of those facilities could adversely affect the State’s bond rating.”

So by August 20, 2002, in an article entitled “State credit rating cut,” the N&O finds Boyles worrying about “the magnitude and devastation of us losing our triple-A rating this time. How long will it take us to recover and demonstrate that we are a triple-A state?” The following year, the Herald-Sun reported in an article entitled “N.C.’s Rising Debt Payments A Growing Concern” (March 24, 2003) that “state debt had risen by 75 percent over the past five years … but that increase doesn’t take into account the $3.3 billion in bonds that have been approved by voters but not yet sold.”

• NCFEO’s FAQs also included this gem: “Q: Will tuition and student fees go up as a result of the bonds? A: No. Tuition and general student fees will not be used to repay the bonds.” Readers will note in hindsight, I’m sure, the deceptive answer to the question. They didn’t ask themselves if tuition and fees would be used to repay the bonds. (Does anybody even wonder if tuition and fees have increased since 2000?)

• Or try this, from Boyles’ letter again: “the bonds will significantly ease the property tax burden of county governments when it comes to upgrading community colleges.” C. Ronald Aycock, executive director of the N.C. Association of County Commissioners, wrote in the N&O August 23, 2000, that “It’s no overstatement to say that the bonds will mean tax relief and budget relief to counties across North Carolina.” Aycock quotes his predecessor at NCACC, Bill Stanley, as saying, “By any measure the bonds will be a windfall to county taxpayers throughout the state, significantly cutting local costs to meet continuing career education facility needs.”

So according Michael Lowry at the John Locke Foundation, in a January 2005 “By the Numbers” report and using the most recent data available, taxpayers’ combined local tax and fee burden as a percentage of income did decrease from 2001 to 2003 — in only 12 of North Carolina’s 100 counties. They increased in all 88 others. How do you spell relief?

Now back to the latest revealed whopper. Have you guessed it yet?

• The bonds are necessary because “enrollment is climbing” and “As it is now, some universities are forced to turn away qualified students” (NCFEO’s FAQs). Without the bonds, Davies wrote, “community colleges will be forced to turn away students” and “our universities will be forced to deny admittance to many qualified North Carolina students.” According to the N&O Sept. 15, 2000, UNC President Molly C. Broad was telling people that “this is not as much about bricks and mortar as it is about providing opportunity for your children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren and fueling the economy of North Carolina.” After the bonds passed, Broad and H. Martin Lancaster, president of the N.C. Community College System, issued a joint statement Nov. 13, 2000, noting that “With their votes on November 7, our citizens affirmed that higher education in this state must continue to open the doors of opportunity for their children and grandchildren, as it has been done for generations past. We pledge to honor this enduring faith.”

So UNC’s doors remain open — and if House Bill 1183 passes — they’ll be open to “providing opportunity to” not just “North Carolina students”, not just “your children”, but illegal aliens’ children. You, the taxpayers (ever more so since passing the bonds in 2000!) will see your children, grandchildren &c. competing for admission with the children of illegal immigrants — oh, but let us use the euphemism — undocumented workers. You will be paying (because the “undocumented” parents probably won’t) to support them, and every “undocumented” UNC student is one more documented North Carolinian turned away, denied admittance to, and so forth. They would have access to in-state tuition, which is a privilege not offered even to legal, documented out-of-state residents (whose parents, perhaps, attended and give to a UNC school).

Speaking of euphemism, this bill — introduced by Rep. John Sauls, R-Harnett, and co-sponsored (initially) by 31 others — carries the delightful title of “Access to Higher Education & A Better Economic Future” Act.

P.T. Barnum would be loving this.