Politics & Government

Conservative group pushes tuition break on athlete scholarships

On its tax returns, the NC Job Creators Forum says its mission is to promote economic development and job creation with less government taxation, spending and regulation.

In recent weeks, it has been lobbying lawmakers to pass legislation that could spare booster clubs millions of dollars in tuition costs for college athletes from other states attending UNC system schools.

The legislation would give UNC system schools the option of swallowing those tuition costs so they could charge out-of-state athletes the in-state tuition rate. At UNC-Chapel Hill, in-state tuition for the 2018-19 academic year was $9,018, compared to $36,000 for out-of-state students.

On Tuesday, the House Appropriations Committee was supposed to take up Senate Bill 144, but then pulled it from consideration. Rep. Jason Saine, a Lincolnton Republican and chief budget writer, said others in a meeting of House Republicans expressed concern about the legislation.

The legislation has never had a detailed discussion in committee. House lawmakers brought it to life in the Rules Committee by stripping a bill that passed the Senate and replacing it with the tuition break. Since it technically passed the Senate, the bill remains alive for next year, even though that chamber passed something much different.

Long fight over athlete tuition

Last month, House leaders sought to bring the legislation for a floor vote, but three representatives succeeded in having it sent to the budget committee. Two of those lawmakers, Rep. George Cleveland, a Jacksonville Republican, and Rep. Pricey Harrison, a Greensboro Democrat, have fought the booster break for years.

They didn’t like it when then state Sen. Tony Rand, a powerful Fayetteville Democrat who chaired the Senate Rules Committee, slipped the break into the state budget in 2005 for athletic and academic scholarships. Cleveland and Harrison succeeded in removing it for athletic scholarships in 2010 in the depths of the Great Recession when the state was facing budget shortfalls.

This year, the break emerged in legislation intended to help college athletes with health, legal and academic matters. That legislation was developed and endorsed by a special legislative committee that looked into the athlete concerns for several months, but the tuition break was not discussed.

The athlete health and welfare legislation sat in a Senate committee, never receiving a hearing.

Conservative group, sports fans

Mike Rusher, president of the NC forum, which was formed in 2016, said a group of sports fans supported the forum’s efforts to restore the tuition break.

In the past, the forum did not include athletics among its lobbying interests, but Rusher said the tuition break boosts higher education, which has been a focus for the nonprofit.

“I think this is viewed as a great investment in education,” he said.

This year, the forum hired Andy Munn, a former aide to House Speaker Tim Moore, to lobby for the tuition break’s passage.

Munn said in an email message that “while the group’s mission focuses on economic development and limited government, they’re also collegiate sports enthusiasts who recognize the importance of investing in our university system, and that competitive athletics programs are good for universities and the communities in which they are located.”

He cited Appalachian State, which drew national attention when it beat a national powerhouse, the University of Michigan, in a football game in 2007, and won three straight national championships from 2005 to 2007. At the time, Appalachian State played in what was first called Division I-AA and then the Football Championship Subdivision — a rung below the top Football Bowl Subdivision in which Appalachian plays now.

Faculty with Appalachian’s American Association of University Professors took an opposing view of the legislation in a post on their website, calling it a “Major fumble!”

The forum shares an address with The Results Company, a political consulting firm led by Chuck Fuller, who has long worked on Republican campaigns. Rusher is The Results Company’s vice president.

The forum’s 2017 tax return, the most recent available from the Internal Revenue Service, shows it had $45,000 in contributions and $19,131 in expenses.

Savings for UNC, NC State and ECU clubs

Harrison said in an interview she does not like the way the legislation emerged, and she remains opposed to it. She estimated the annual cost to UNC schools at $17 million.

She recalled that Bill Friday, the highly-regarded former leader of the UNC system who died in 2012, had fought the tuition break.

While Harrison said she could see some merit for helping smaller schools who do not have much booster club support, the majority of the savings would go to clubs serving UNC, N.C. State and East Carolina University. Those schools are in higher-profile conferences that compete nationally for recruits, and they draw more money from televised games and merchandise sales.

Harrison listed several other areas that she thought would be a better use of available state funds – teacher pay, child care, health care or cleaning up environmental contamination.

“There are some huge priorities,” she said, “and I would not put subsidizing booster clubs at the top.”

Whether the bill will pop up again this session depends on House leaders mustering the votes.

“I’m not the [bill’s] sponsor, I’m just walking the dog,” Saine said.

He said he’s hopeful the bill will be taken up this session, but if not, it remains alive next year.

“That’s the magic of the legislature,” Saine said.

Reporter Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan contributed to this story.

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Dan Kane began working for The News & Observer in 1997. He covered local government, higher education and the state legislature before joining the investigative team in 2009.