Raleigh, N.C. — A last-minute amendment by Senate leaders Wednesday docked the University of North Carolina School of Law budget by $3 million. Democrats say it's political payback for the school's employment of legislative critic Gene Nichol.
Despite the fact that Republican Senate leaders have been working on the budget behind closed doors for nearly three weeks, Senate Rules Committee Chairman Tom Apodaca apparently forgot until the end of Wednesday afternoon's floor debate – after Democrats had loudly criticized the GOP-penned budget for hours – that he wanted to take $3 million from the law school in Chapel Hill and give it to the Mountain Area Health Education Center, or MAHEC, located in Asheville.
The addition would increase MAHEC's state funding next year from $5.9 million to $8.9 million. The center serves a 16-county area, including Apodaca's district of Henderson County. Apodaca said the additional funds would help address the shortage of doctors in rural western North Carolina.
Sen. Ralph Hise, R-Mitchell, spoke in support of the amendment.
"I think we all know the law school can absorb this, and nothing will change," Hise said. "I’ve been all across my district. I've never heard, 'If we could only get some more lawyers in my district, we could solve this problem.'"
Senate Democrats were left bewildered, with many saying that, while they support boosting MAHEC's funding to deal with rural provider shortages, the law school's budget isn't the best place to find the money.
Sen. Floyd McKissick, D-Durham, pointed out that the repeal of the privilege license tax for banks is costing the state $12 million, which would easily cover the additional funds without touching the law school's funding.
"Could we do this in conference?" McKissick asked.
"Fiscal analysis shows it's actually making money. They are making a profit," Apodaca responded, adding that the law school also has a foundation account of nearly $40 million. "So, I think we can rest assured they’ll be able to churn out as many lawyers this year as they did last year."
Sen. Jeff Jackson, D-Mecklenburg, said the school has been saving that money to pay for a new building because its current building is nearly 50 years old. Calling the amendment "piñata politics," he asked whether other agencies or schools should be concerned about similar "arbitrary cuts."
"No," Apodaca answered.
The UNC School of Law employs Professor Gene Nichol, a frequent and outspoken critic of Republican legislative leaders. Earlier this year, the GOP-appointed UNC Board of Governors ordered the closure of the think tank Nichol used to lead, the privately-funded Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity, but Nichol retains his tenure on the school's faculty.
Sen. Terry Van Duyn, D-Buncombe, chastised Apodaca for the move.
"I have great respect for you, and you know how near and dear MAHEC is to me. But this, quite frankly, breaks my heart because it seems totally undeliberative and quite, in fact, punitive and just not worthy of this body, and it pains me to say that," Van Duyn said. "This is not the way we should be making laws."
Sen. Mike Woodard, D-Durham, questioned whether the "capricious" cut would force reductions in financial aid or public service programs at the school.
"This feels like the Gene Nichol transfer amendment," Woodard added.
Apodaca did not immediately respond to an inquiry from WRAL News about the timing and rationale for his amendment, but he said nothing to dispute Democrats' accusations during the floor debate.
On Thursday morning, Rucho said that he was merely looking to put funds into MAHEC and said he believed a law school was a good place to get the money. Asked why UNC's law school was, in particular, targeted, Apodaca said it was because UNC-CH had the most money of the law schools in the UNC system.
Asked about his statement on the floor Wednesday, Woodard said he "assumed this was part of Apodaca's rationale for introducing this amendment from out of left field in the waning moments of a six-hour debate."
When he was asked if Nichol was the target of the amendment, Apodaca said he "didn't even thing of" the controversial professor.
"If I was going after him, I would have put his position number in there," Apodaca said, referring to a process lawmakers have used in the past to fire specific individuals.
Reached for comment, Nichol himself doesn't doubt the motive.
"I'm sure it's got nothing to do with me," Nichol replied sarcastically. "Just ask [BOG Chairman John] Fennebresque and [UNC-CH Chancellor Carol] Folt."
The amendment passed 30-19 with Democrats Don Davis of Wayne County and Paul Lowe of Mecklenburg County voting for it, and five Republicans voting against it, including UNC law professor Tamara Barringer of Wake County and UNC Law alumni Warren Daniel of Burke County, Fletcher Hartsell of Cabarrus County and Jeff Tarte of Mecklenburg County.