By Tanner Hall
Administrators at Western Carolina University say a budget impasse at the state level could delay funding for two key initiatives: NC Promise and replacement of the campus steam plant.
WCU Board of Trustees members discussed last week the likelihood of budget gridlock in Raleigh and the impact it could have locally. State officials in both the House and Senate have included necessary dollars to keep afloat the university’s low-cost tuition plan and fix its aging steam plant; however, Meredith Whitfield, director of external relations for WCU, told trustees a veto from Gov. Roy Cooper would put everything on hold.
“We are assuming the governor will veto,” Whitfield said last Thursday. “(Legislators) do not have enough votes – that we see – for them to overturn that veto, so then we will go into a state of ‘who knows what.’”
Trustee member Casey Cooper asked if the veto is related at all to Medicaid expansion.
“It is, and I think the legislature at this point has no plans of including it,” Whitfield responded. “If they don’t come up with an agreement, we would continue to be funded at this current year’s funding. We won’t shut down like the federal government does, but that also means we don’t get enrollment growth funding with our NC Promise buy-down, and we won’t get the remaining money for the steam plant.”
Beginning last fall, NC Promise cut the per-semester tuition cost for in-state students to $500 at WCU and two other institutions – the University of North Carolina at Pembroke and Elizabeth City State University. The rate for out-of-state students dropped to $2,500.
State legislators are responsible for maintaining the bargain tuition program. General Assembly members pinpointed during the previous budget cycle $40 million as the revenue subsidy needed to undergird the three universities involved, and WCU leaders predicted they alone would suffer a $26 million revenue loss.
That dollar amount is expected to increase as enrollment continues to climb.
“The university would still receive the same amount of base NC Promise funding for next year that we received for this past year, but we would not receive additional funds to cover the cost of our enrollment growth,” WCU Spokesperson Bill Studenc said. “That would mean no new money to fund additional faculty or staff positions to teach and provide services to those students.”
Also at stake is financing to replace the steam plant, which supplies heat and hot water for campus.
WCU officials have been concerned for years that the university is just one harsh winter and one catastrophic mechanical failure away from campus shutdown because of a lack of steam and hot water. That nearly occurred in the winter of 2016, when the oldest boiler failed, resulting in the need to install costly temporary boilers with a projected lifespan of only 10 years.
Portions of the steam plant system date back to the 1920s. The typical life expectancy for the plant’s three older boilers is about 30 years, and two of them date back to the late 1960s. The third boiler was put into operation in 1973.
“The university would not break ground on the project until the remaining $16.5 million is in the budget as approved by both the Senate the House and until the budget bill is signed by the governor,” Studenc said. “The university has done some of the preliminary planning and design work for the project.”
Trustees said they believe a potential legislative battle over Medicaid could delay financial relief for WCU into the fall.
“We have seen this, in this state, go until September, so hang on,” trustees’ Vice Chair Bryant Kinney said.