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2011 May 2 - 12:00 am

TRACKING TRENDS : NC Republicans Seek Balance Between Colleges, Public Schools

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — As long as most people can remember, Democratic House and Senate budget-writers went to opposite corners over what they considered the suitable balance on expanding or cutting spending in the public schools and the University of North Carolina system. It appears Republicans are now doing the same thing.

The tradition was Senate Democrats protected UNC’s 17 campuses more in their budget proposals, while House counterparts were more apt to defend local school districts and classrooms. Whatever the reason for this dichotomy — personalities, education experience or occupations — the differences led to late-night negotiations, horse trading and political intrigue over the years.

“Certainly I recognized over the years that the Senate seemed to have a stronger voice for the university system and the House ... seemed to be more aligned with K-12,” said Philip Kirk, a former State Board of Education chairman and chief executive of the state chamber of commerce. “It could have been a little bit of that political gamesmanship and jockeying for the budget negotiations.”

But these preferences apparently aren’t partisan in nature. They haven’t changed under the new Republican majority at the Legislature, at least in the early stages of budget discussions.

House Republicans sound more inclined to limit public school cuts at the expense of the UNC system, while Senate Republicans already concerned about state spending reductions within UNC the past four years don’t want disproportionate pain placed upon what many consider the state’s crown jewel.

“There’s probably a difference of focus, or at least a difference of opinion as to what the right number is for K-12 or what the right number is for universities,” said Senate leader Phil Berger.

While Berger and other lawmakers said the difference may not be as wide as when Democrats led the Legislature, finding the balance may prove again the toughest obstacle before approving a budget by June that could eliminate thousands of education positions. The $11.2 billion allocated for public education this year comprises nearly 60 percent of the state budget.

“It’s going to be a tough task when you’ve got this large of a cut that you’ve got to make,” said Rep. Bryan Holloway, a co-chairman of the House education budget subcommittee. “It’s going to be a year that nobody’s going to be happy.”

The House rolled out its first menu of budget-cutting options that seeks to spend $1.4 billion less next year than Gov. Beverly Perdue’s budget proposal sought in six broad categories. GOP leaders have told budget-writers to come up with $763 million of those reductions from public education — the public schools, UNC and community college systems — or 12 percent less than what is needed to keep services at current levels and enroll students next fall.

The House and Senate held joint education budget meetings in public for weeks to discuss options legislative staff members offered to the lawmakers to meet that 12 percent goal.

Recently, however, the top education budget-writers have met behind closed doors to determine how much in cuts should be absorbed by each of the three parts of public education.

Holloway said there’s already been general agreement about the level of cuts for community colleges, but the Senate and House don’t agree on the UNC system and the public schools.

Holloway wouldn’t give more specifics, but he said the House plan would seek cuts of a percentage in the teens for the UNC system and less than 12 percent for the public schools.

“I think the university has the ability to sustain a larger cut with some of the resources that they have that K-12 and the community colleges don’t,” Holloway said, pointing to tuition increases and outside funds. “I think they can stomach a larger cut.”

Sen. Richard Stevens, one of the Senate’s chief budget writers, pointed out that so much of the university’s system spending is restricted by endowments or government grants it can’t be shifted from one line item to another that easily.

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