Budget co-chair Sen. Tom Apodaca, R-Henderson, answers questions on the Senate budget proposal in May. Kirk Ross/Carolina Public Press

A controversial tuition reduction plan for Western Carolina University, spending on a western crime lab, a western high school campus similar to the School of Science and Math and new medical school facilities at UNC-Asheville are among the key WNC provisions in the new Senate budget.

The budget plan, released late Tuesday night, got its first committee review Wednesday and appears headed for passage by the Senate early Friday morning. The bill, which is still open for amendments today, is expected to pass second reading this afternoon and third reading after midnight.

The tuition plan, which was originally planned for five UNC system campuses, was dialed back Wednesday after an intense lobbying effort by supporters of HBUC, the system’s historically black universities and colleges. They were concerned that the inclusion of HBUCs were an attempt to defund the schools.

The measure, sponsored by Sen. Tom Apodaca, R-Henderson, a graduate of WCU, lowers tuition at the schools to $500 per semester for state residents and $2,500 for out-of-state students. The intent, supporters say, is to increase access for lower-income students and reduce student debt levels. But opponents of the move said it would create a lower-tier of higher education in the state and did not ensure future state support to make up for the loss of funds. The original legislation, which was rolled into the budget, includes a $70 million set aside to make up for the funding. It also calls for a 5 percent reduction in student fees at all UNC campuses and limits annual increases to 3 percent.

Key WNC items

Also on Wednesday, as the Senate began discussion of its version of the 2016-17 budget, Apodaca spent a few moments explaining budget items that benefit the WNC region, including $3 million in recurring money to a created an Asheville campus for the UNC School of Medicine that would send more medical students to the region to complete their residencies.

Apodaca said the Asheville location, which would be a partnership between the Chapel Hill-based UNC School of Medicine and the Mountain Area Health Education Center, fulfills a critical need for better health care in the mountains.

“I know we have a tendency in this General Assembly only to worry about Eastern North Carolina, but we have our own issues in Western North Carolina with positions, but no doctors,” he said. The plan, which follows on funding in last year’s budget, is aimed at getting more positions filled in Ob-Gyn, general surgery and psychiatry, Apodaca said.

“This is an effort to get more docs in Western North Carolina,” he said.

Also included in the Senate spending plan is $1.4 million for the first year of operations the for the new Western Crime Lab in Edneyville and $630,000 in start-up money for the  Western School of Engineering and Technology in Morganton, a UNC system high school similar to the School of the Science and Math in Durham, which would serve the western region.

Differences in the details

While both the crime lab and high school spending levels are similar to the House budget passed in late May, the medical-school residency funding is one of several areas where senators differed from their House counterparts and a plan offered earlier this year by Gov. Pat McCrory.

Both sides started the year with the same budget targets after an agreement between Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, and House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, set the total amount of spending at $22.1 billion. But how each chamber arrived at the final total involves some key differences.

The Senate plan includes a big boost for teachers and a change in the pay schedule and a combination of one-time bonuses and targeted raises for some state employees. The House plan includes a $500 one-time bonus and a 2 percent across-the-board raise.

The House also included a 1.7 percent cost-of-living adjustment for state retirees. At Tuesday’s news conference Berger said he did not think the state should take on additional increases for retirees.

Also not in agreement between the two chambers is how to keep up with the popularity of DuPont State Recreational Forest. The House budget included funding for nine new Forest Service positions along with new parking lots and restroom facilities. It would also allow DuPont access to money from the State Parks and Recreation Trust Fund.

The Senate plan for DuPont relies instead on receipts from timber and forest product sales from the property. It would set up a DuPont Forest Fund in the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, and allow the Forest Service to use money from the receipts and any “gifts, bequests or grants” for improvements and repair.

The Senate plan does not include separate funding for the new rangers or facilities.

The House is expected to vote not to concur with the Senate budget early next week, starting formal negotiations between the two chambers on a final plan.

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Kirk Ross was the former capital bureau chief for Carolina Public Press. To contact the Carolina Public Press newsroom, email info@carolinapublicpress.org.

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