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Gannon: Politics and perception doomed tuition bill

RALEIGH — The recent firestorm over steep reductions in tuition proposed at five universities — including three historically black ones — illustrates much of what is wrong with North Carolina politics.

We had questionable process from Senate Republicans on what was sure to be a highly controversial proposal. We had evidence of public distrust in the General Assembly. We had inflammatory rhetoric from certain opponents, as well as an alleged death threat to the bill sponsor. And at least for now, we have a result that has further divided the state racially and politically.

Let’s hope there’s a silver lining in here somewhere.

Sen. Tom Apodaca, a Hendersonville Republican, proposed cutting tuition to $500 per semester for in-state students at Elizabeth City State, Fayetteville State, Winston-Salem State, UNC Pembroke and Western Carolina, his alma mater. The former three are historically black colleges and universities, or HBCUs. The motivation, Apodaca said, was “to make the benefits of public education available to all citizens of North Carolina.”

Sounds like a pretty good concept, right?

But the outcry was swift and severe from officials, students and alumni of the HBCUs. They questioned the motives behind the proposal and whether it would cheapen degrees from those institutions. NC NAACP President William Barber said the bill wasn’t about making college more affordable but an attempt to drain money from them.

“This bill attacks people of color directly,” Barber said. “The goal is clear. Disperse these centers of cultural, intellectual and political power for our small — but rapidly growing — leadership cadre. Disrupt the mission of HBCUs by bankrupting them.” The bill, by the way, included money to cover the lost tuition dollars, but opponents were skeptical.

Apodaca deemed the reaction to the bill “somewhat shocking and somewhat embarrassing” and described a death threat he received at his office because of it. He proposed an amendment to remove the HBCUs from the proposal, leaving the other two universities in. It passed easily.

But all four of the African-American senators who spoke about the bill on the Senate floor said they believed Senate Bill 873 was well-intended.

Sen. Floyd McKissick, a Durham Democrat, said he didn’t doubt that Apodaca proposed the legislation “out of sincere concern for the plight of the universities.” “I don’t believe there was a nefarious plan to sabotage the historically black colleges and universities,” he said.

The problem, in part, was the process. The HBCU chancellors should have been brought to the table much sooner and their input included in a different version of the bill that everyone could support, McKissick said.

“I hope that one day somebody might look back at this as a missed opportunity but also do a case study to figure out how you pull together the stakeholders, how you work through the process, how you incorporate their feedback and opinion and how you do it from the very outset, so that we can all develop a plan,” he said.

Sen. Don Davis, a Snow Hill Democrat, talked about how threats by Republicans in recent years to close Elizabeth City State have harmed that university by decreasing enrollment and left HBCU supporters feeling picked on by lawmakers. In part, that’s where the distrust comes from.

Sen. Gladys Robinson, a Greensboro Democrat, voted against taking the HBCUs out of the measure, saying she believed it was “well-intended and the universities needed it.” She added that she was saddened that the opportunity for those HBCUs seems lost because of politics and perception.

“Partisanship has kept us from bridging the divide this time,” Robinson said. “That’s really what it is, is how we see things, how people on the outside see it.”

Gannon is the editor of The Insider State Government News Service. Reach him at pgannon@ncinsider.com.

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