To demonstrate the enormity of the impending budget shortfall, consider this: if the University of North Carolina System was not appropriated a single dollar next year, the state would still face a $500 million budget gap. Currently the Fiscal Research Division at the General Assembly estimates that the budget deficit will be in excess of $3.2 billion next year. Meanwhile, last year the UNC System was appropriated $2.67 billion. The sheer size of those numbers is mind boggling, especially when one considers that the UNC System accounted for 14% of last year’s budget.
Outgoing UNC System President Erskine Bowles recently pushed the university system to the forefront of the budget discussion by saying that a large enough cut in 2011 may necessitate the closure of a UNC System campus. Currently the system operates 17 campuses including one high school, the North Carolina School of Science and Math in Durham, the UNC School of the Arts in Winston Salem and 15 universities. Bowles stated that it may be better to close down a campus than to allow drastic cuts at each campus which could compromise the quality of education.
Closing down a UNC campus would be, without a doubt, one of the most toxic political issues our state has faced. North Carolinians have prided themselves on high quality and affordable public higher education. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill was the first public university in the nation to open its doors and the only public university to graduate a student in the 18th century. Our state constitution also requires that “the General Assembly shall provide that the benefits of the University of North Carolina…as far as practicable…to the people of the state free of expense.” Closing a public university would rock our state to the core.
However, the fiscal situation North Carolina finds itself in may call for desperate measures; it is time the state faces the grim reality that public sacrifice is necessary to get our fiscal house in order. The state cannot viably tax itself out of this budget hole. Sans stimulus and the temporary taxes imposed in 2009, the General Assembly cannot kick the can down the road any further; the consequences of excessive spending over the last decade and the recession must be faced now.
In the midst of a deep recession, last year’s General Assembly added 382 jobs to the UNC System. Further, the system was appropriated $10 million more than was originally budgeted in 2009 for this fiscal year. That sort of irresponsible leadership, which has heretofore refused to face the facts and act accordingly, cannot continue. The fiscal fantasy is over. It is time that the people of North Carolina hold their leaders to account and pressure them to act like adults while making the difficult decisions instead of putting them off for another year.