The UNC Board of Governors last week approved its first budget request drafted under President Erskine Bowles. Such a moment is a time for unity, but there are always the carefully worded comments that underline the disparate needs and clout of a 17-campus system and the long-running tensions yet to be resolved.
Foremost among the tensions is the relationship of UNC-Chapel Hill and N.C. State to the rest of the group. As the unanimous vote was cast for a $2.6 billion budget request, the elephant in the room was the recent dust-up over the third-quarter campaign finance report filed Oct. 30 by Citizens for Higher Education, a political action committee created six years ago by a powerful group of UNC-Chapel Hill supporters.
Since its inception, the group has grown to become the top PAC in the state--ahead of traditional top PACs like the state Medical Society, N.C. Home Builders Association and Duke Energy. The nearly $396,000 the PAC raised and spent in the 2004 election cycle put it just under the N.C. Republican Party in giving.
A Nov. 2 report by Democracy N.C., a money-in-politics watchdog group, noted that the PAC was on the way to another record, giving 17 legislators the $8,000 maximum contribution and dozens more contributions ranging from $4,000 to $6,000.
For campaign finance reformers like Democracy N.C.'s Bob Hall, it's clear all that money is intended to do something.
"They've bought into the perspective that you've got to pay to play and that you got to pay big if you want to be a big player," he says.
A recent, highly detailed study of UNC system governance by the N.C. Center for Public Policy Research says the rise of campus PACs represents a disturbing trend.
"In effect, this returns the system back to pre-1971 days when the campus with the best lobbyist and largest alumni group won," the report says, "only now it's the campus with the most political action committee contributions."
Trustee Paul Fulton says the idea of the PAC backing some secretive effort to break UNC-Chapel Hill off from the system is preposterous.
"I've never heard anything like that in any Citizens for Higher Education board meeting--and I've been in all of them," Fulton says.
While Chapel Hill and system leaders may have some disagreements over tuition, the campus and General Administration are working on the same goals, Fulton asserts.
"Right now, I don't know of anywhere where we're not directly aligned," he says.
The PAC's contributors are a mix of big Rams, former and current UNC trustees and the invite list to a Franklin Street dinner party. The last round of fundraising and contributions won't be reported until early 2007, but so far nearly 50 contributors have kicked in the maximum of $5,000, including trustees Fulton, Roger Perry, Tim Burnett and Nelson Schwab III. Chapel Hillians giving the max include Chapel Hill Realty's John Cates, Resolute Building's Dave Anna, WCHL owner Jim Heavner and former UNC officials Paul Rizzo, Robert Eubanks and William McCoy of Franklin Street Partners.
Distributions by the PAC have included longtime UNC backers like Rep. Joe Hackney and Sens. Tony Rand and Marc Basnight, but as the PAC has grown it has started to spread its money around, a trend Hall says is typical of a larger PAC.
Among the 17 candidates who got the maximum $8,000 were six Republicans, including former UNC Trustee Sen. Richard Stevens of Wake County and former House Speaker Harold Brubaker. The PAC also got involved in Republican primaries, sending $8,000 to Peter Brunstetter in Forsyth County and backing moderate Republicans like former Speaker Richard Morgan and House hopeful Steven LaRoque. Though Morgan and LaRoque lost, for the most part the PAC backed winners.
Though that may translate into access, what it might yield in the next session of the legislature is unclear.
On the short list for UNC-Chapel Hill are $12 million for planning and infrastructure for its Carolina North project and $32 million for a new 200-bed inpatient tower at UNC Hospitals. Both items are in the budget passed by the Board of Governors last week.
Although Chapel Hill's PAC has grown into the largest, it is not the only one on the rise. Contributions from N.C. State's PAC, Economic Development Coalition 2000, soared this cycle. Its third-quarter statement show the PAC handed out $84,000 as of Oct. 26--on its way to tripling the $30,000 in contributions recorded in 2004.