Stop these subsidies

From Bob Phillips, executive director of Common Cause North Carolina:

As N.C. lawmakers scramble to find more money to meet our state's growing needs, there's one place where the state could recoup millions without raising taxes or cutting government services. Stop subsidizing college tuition for out-of-state athletes at our public universities. It's costing taxpayers of this state more than $10 million dollars a year, and counting.

Before 2005, university athletic booster clubs picked up the entire tuition tab for out-of-state athletes. But the General Assembly changed the law, forcing taxpayers to make up the difference and giving the booster clubs a big price break of in-state tuition for out-of state athletes on scholarship.

That difference between in-state and out-of-state tuition is significant – at UNC Chapel Hill about $15,500 a year per athlete. It increases each year as more and more out-of state athletes are recruited to our public universities. By the 2010 academic year, the cost to the public is projected to rise to more than $16 million.

Why did lawmakers pass such a law? Because a powerful political action committee, created by wealthy alumni for the benefit of UNC-Chapel Hill, wanted it.

This PAC, called Citizens for Higher Education, has invested more than a half-million dollars in the campaign coffers of legislative candidates in recent years. Big contributions have gone to nearly two thirds of the sitting members of the General Assembly, with many of the donations to individual lawmakers exceeding $2000.

Last year, the N.C. House passed a bill to end this public subsidy. The Senate should have considered it this year. But HB 205 isn't going anywhere. It's an election year and the PAC has given sizable campaign contributions to nearly half the Senate.

The citizens who fund the Citizens for Higher Education PAC may have good intentions, wanting the best for their favorite university. But, this is a bad policy. Ten million dollars and counting could be put to better use for N.C. students.

Our state's community colleges waive out-of state tuition for a variety of individuals, including members of the armed services. Providing a tuition break for those folks makes sense.

In this time of lean revenues and cuts in services, it's too bad there isn't an honest discussion about the public subsidy of out-of-state athletes. Ttaxpayers deserve an explanation. State leaders also need to question the value of PAC's created for the benefit of public universities. They need to set boundaries for these PAC'S. Do we want all 16 campuses to have their own political action committees, raising money to obtain an edge with lawmakers?

The consolidated UNC system was formed in large part to eliminate that kind of in-fighting and improve education.

For The Record offers commentaries from various sources. The views are the writer's, and not necessarily those of the Observer editorial board.