How to hamstring a watchdog

June 9, 2017

Inside Insight

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Legislature cripples higher ed commission

By ELISABETH PARKER

The state’s higher education sector keeps growing, in no small part by borrowing to expand and taking on debt that ultimately puts every taxpayer on the hook. No matter the merits of funding education, there ought to be oversight and accountability here.

That role is vested in the Commission on Higher Education. Yet the CHE has said it has insufficient resources to fulfill all the 160 duties outlined in state code. In recent years, it’s been less than thorough in vetting new university projects. However, this past year, it’s done a noticeably better job of acting as the gatekeeper for such spending.

According to information provided by CHE, in the past 10 years, the state’s public universities have funded over $3.7 billion in capital projects. Until last year, CHE had never rejected a capital project request.

Then Clemson submitted a $62.5 million Football Operations Center plan with only $1.5 million coming from private donors. CHE questioned the university, and the school returned with a revised plan of $55 million, with $35.5 million from private funding.

USC also submitted for approval a Football Operations Center project of $50 million with $3 million in private money. CHE again pushed back, and the university guaranteed $14 million from future gifts.

As The Nerve reported last year, Coastal Carolina switched football conferences and so was required to have a higher-capacity stadium. To cover the cost of construction, the school wanted to issue bonds. CHE found this fiscally unsound, as Coastal Carolina lacked the means to repay the debt. Its request for bonds was rejected four times by CHE. At that point, Coastal Carolina skirted CHE and lobbied the legislature. The skirting resulted in a budget proviso that permitted the university to expand its stadium with state dollars.

In the wake of Coastal Carolina’s circumvention of CHE, a proviso was passed for this year’s budget, on Tuesday. It takes away some oversight authority from CHE by suspending its comments and recommendations on any auxiliary, athletic, maintenance, and renovation or permanent improvement projects. Instead, these requests will go for approval through the Executive Budget Office, Joint Bond Review Committee, and State Fiscal Accountability Authority, cutting CHE out of the process.

There was considerable confusion during the Senate’s debate on that proviso, over exactly which projects it would apply to. Many House members had explained it as affecting only non-academic proposals. However, as multiple senators noted, the language of the proviso is broad and could be interpreted to pertain to projects other than athletic ones, such as the renovation of the old USC Law School building.

What’s maddening about this whole chain of events is the brazenness of the legislature in removing accountability and bowing to higher education lobbying. As tuition costs continue to rise and schools create more and more projects to fund, there’s no more crucial time than now to scrutinize how necessary all this borrowing is and whether it’s financially viable. How can CHE do that if it’s cut off at the knees?

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