Where the Money Is?

The Raleigh News and Observer has been quarrelling with a group based in Chapel Hill called the Citizens for Higher Education (CHE). CHE is the second-largest political action committee (PAC) in the state, measured by the amounts of money given to legislators. Its goal is to ”build political support for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the state’s other research universities.” In other words, it lobbies the legislature to obtain special benefits for the state’s leading public campuses.

Last fall the News and Observer complained that CHE “insults the parent university system by playing big-money politics” and is “only too willing to cross palms with silver.” The N&O thinks it is unseemly for CHE to lobby independently. This independence repudiates the tacit agreement that launched the state’s current university system in 1972 – the understanding that public campuses should not compete for funds from the legislature. Instead, under a single university administration, all campuses should sort out their differences and come to the legislature with a unified request for funds and statutory changes.

At first blush, the newspaper’s complaint is understandable: According to Democracy North Carolina, CHE gave $425,000 to legislative candidates in the 2006 election. And the organization has had its successes; for example, its lobbying usually gets the credit for a 2005 state law that changed scholarships for out-of-state students to equal in-state tuition. This means that the same amount of money can support many more out-of-state students — but the taxpayer, not the scholarship donor, now must pay the extra costs of tuition. The schools that benefit the most are Chapel Hill and N.C. State, campuses that draw many out-of-state students through athletic and academic scholarships.

It’s difficult, however, to know whether to chastise CHE members for taking advantage of their political clout or to applaud them for supporting their favorite school. After all, each member forks over $2,500 per year.

Whatever one’s opinion, this debate over CHE offers some lessons that all the citizens of North Carolina can learn from.

First, this is the way the system works. Without casting aspersions, I am reminded of Willie Sutton’s response to the question of why he robbed banks: “Because that’s where the money is.” Special interests like CHE recognize that taxpayers have the money they want and that the General Assembly is the key to the vault.

And they have a legal right to go after it. Preventing organizations like CHE from using their funds as they wish would be curtailing their rights to speech, assembly, and petition.

The problem – and this is the second lesson – is that the taxpayer is vulnerable. Taxpayers can lose their shirts to higher education just as they can lose their shirts to trial lawyers and business lobbyists. Indeed, as Mark Twain said, “No man’s life, liberty, or property is safe while the legislature is in session.”

Rather than try to wish away the lobbying they don’t like, critics should direct their attention to the results. Recognizing that as long as the legislature has money to transfer it will always be lobbied, taxpayers should be vigilant about what actually happens in the legislature.

For those interested in higher education in North Carolina, that means finding out what the legislature is about to finance and assessing whether its choices are good for the people of North Carolina. It means monitoring not only the Citizens for Higher Education but also the other higher education lobbyists, such as the UNC General Administration itself and other recipients of state funding such as the government-supported N.C. Biotechnology Center.

North Carolina has an excellent and well-supported system of higher education. Because so much of the system is funded through the state legislature, it will always be subject to the push and pull of special interests. That’s why we need watchdogs to shine the light of publicity on dubious uses. The Pope Center for Higher Education Policy is one of those watchdogs (see these articles on higher education), but we need many more. Rather than just grousing, critics should be scrutinizing.