State budget includes full NC Promise funding, $750K for steam plant design

Margaret Spellings (right), president of the University of North Carolina system, tours WCU’s antiquated steam plant with Lee Smith, WCU’s director of operations and maintenance, during her visit to campus in March 2016. The new state budget includes $750,000 to allow university officials to begin planning and design for the steam plant’s repair or replacement.

The ink has dried on the state budget – and Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto has been overridden by the Legislature – resulting in a $23 billion spending package for 2017-18 that includes several items of note for Western Carolina University and the University of North Carolina system.

Perhaps most significant is the fact the budget provides full funding for the NC Promise Tuition Plan, with $51 million allocated to WCU and the other two UNC institutions selected to participate in the program – Elizabeth City State University and UNC Pembroke.

Beginning in fall 2018, in-state tuition expenses at those three universities will drop to $500 per semester, with tuition for non-North Carolina residents decreasing to $2,500 per semester. Last year’s legislation establishing NC Promise included $40 million to cover the difference between undergraduate students’ out-of-pocket costs for tuition at the three NC Promise campuses and the actual cost of providing that education.

UNC officials successfully pushed for an additional $11 million allocation, pointing out that the original figure of $40 million was based on out-of-date enrollment numbers.

“We thank the members of the General Assembly for their support of the NC Promise tuition program. This program is a transformative initiative that reflects a commitment to ensure that a high-quality, affordable education is available to all North Carolinians,” said WCU Chancellor David O. Belcher.

In addition, the new state budget provides full enrollment growth funding for the UNC system to help cover the costs of teaching larger numbers of students. The budget bill calls for funds for projected enrollment growth at UNC institutions to be held in a reserve under the control of the Office of State Budget and Management, and to be distributed to the campuses upon verification of actual enrollment numbers.

The budget bill includes funding for a $1,000 salary increase for all state employees, with additional flexibility to address salaries for EHRA employees (those Exempt from the Human Resources Act), and removes previously proposed salary holdback and vacant position reductions that would have amounted to a $42 million cut to the UNC system. The bill grants three bonus leave days to leave-earning employees; the leave does not expire but cannot be “cashed out.”

It also allocates $125 million in repair and renovation funding across the state, $62.5 million of which will go to the UNC system. WCU’s aging steam plant, which dates back to the 1920s and provides heat and hot water for much of the campus, earned a $750,000 allocation from the repair and renovation reserve fund so that university officials can begin planning and designing for its repair or replacement.

The budget will fund a UNC system data analytics project over the next two years, with $1 million in the first year and $9 million in the second, and will provide laboratory school funding to the tune of $1.9 million for 2017-18 and $930,000 for 2018-19.

WCU, which is among the two UNC institutions launching lab schools this fall, is opening the Catamount School, housed at Smoky Mountain High School in nearby Sylva to provide alternate educational experiences to Jackson County children in grades six, seven and eight. Seven additional lab schools are scheduled to come online next year.

“We are pleased that the budget plan includes full funding for enrollment growth across the UNC system, funding for increased salaries to recruit and retain top-notch faculty and staff talent, and some funding to address the many critical repair and renovation needs in the UNC system,” Belcher said. “We look forward to continuing our partnership with the General Assembly and our UNC colleagues to ensure the appropriate level of investment needed to meet the system goals related to student access, student success, affordability and efficiency.”

Meredith Whitfield, director of external affairs, called the state spending plan “a positive budget overall” for the UNC system and for WCU. “The system did receive a $7 million management flexibility cut to take effect in year two of the biennial budget,” Whitfield said. “The bad news is, of course, that WCU will have to take its share of that cut. The good news is that it is a one-time cut rather than a recurring cut.”

In other legislative news, the General Assembly approved a bill outlining new self-liquidating capital projects at UNC institutions, including authorization for WCU to proceed on a $23.6 million parking garage.

The Legislature also authorized the revival of the N.C. Teaching Fellows Program, with five universities to be selected by a state commission by November for participation in the program, which would provide forgivable loans of $8,250 per year for students who commit to teaching science, technology, engineering, mathematics or special education in North Carolina.