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The lottery, tuition, and Robin Hood

By D. G. Martin
Posted Monday, January 31, 2005

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Maybe Robin Hood really was a hero.

He robbed from the rich in order to give to the poor.

At least that is the way the story goes.

A Robin Hood theory of public finance is gaining a toehold in North Carolina governmental and public university finance.

There are plenty of these "good causes" to go around.

The new Robin Hood rule goes something like this: "If a good cause needs the money, it is okay to break faith with basic principles to get what is needed."

"Sometimes," these modern Robin Hoods tell us, "the other values just have to be subordinated."

There are plenty of these "good causes" to go around.

In Raleigh, with the state legislature facing a continuing shortage in funds, proponents of a state lottery will urge state representatives to put aside principle. "Make a practical decision. The money is there and you need it."

Many legislators who have studied the state sponsored lottery believe that the minimal net income it would bring does not justify the damage to government and civic society that comes when the state begins to urge its citizens to gamble.

Some of them, however, have been willing to support a state lottery "if, and only if, the proceeds go into a 'trust fund' for education."

Today, many of them, having given up their principles earlier, now support the lottery without limitation. Once a person gives up a principle, it is hard to find a pathway back to solid ground.

North Carolina public universities have also lost the solid ground of a firm principle by breaking away from the state's long term "low tuition" policy long championed by former president William Friday.

It must be said that the funds raised by increased tuition have mostly gone for important, even urgent needs.

But there are consequences.

There is the question of the state's constitution. It provides, "The General Assembly shall provide that the benefits of The University of North Carolina and other public institutions of higher education, as far as practicable, be extended to the people of the state free of expense."

Perhaps the language of the provision is not absolutely clear. The "free of expense" language is modified by "as far as practicable." But the constitutional language cannot be fairly interpreted to justify continuing annual large increases and higher and higher costs to students.

The state's supreme court will have to interpret the constitutional language in the end. Lawyers are drafting their papers to gain a ruling on the constitutional requirement. A strict interpretation of the constitution could put the university in a straightjacket that would take away its ability to make even modest tuition increases from time to time and force rollbacks of prior increases in tuition and fees.

Recent actions at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill could help the challengers in their legal action. Last week's trustee proposals would increase tuition again. In addition, student fees would be raised to fund athletic scholarships and, indirectly, provide for increased fund for merit scholarship programs.

As a result, the challengers' lawyers would say, ordinary North Carolina students will be paying to subsidize the education of scholarship athletes and "meritorious" students. North Carolina students will be "taxed" to pay not for students who do not have any financial need.

Any attempt by the university to show that these kind of extra charges to students fit within some kind of "practicality" test would be laughed out of court. "It is Robin Hood in reverse," the judges might say.

But the on-going reversal of North Carolina's low cost university education policy is more than a constitutional problem.

North Carolina's healthy civic life and its vibrant and resilient economy were built on a university that lacked much in the way of resources. But it always kept a wide open door -economically speaking. Many of the state's best leaders are university graduates who could have never made it without the "low tuition" policy.

The effort to minimize the negative consequences of higher and higher costs such as the Carolina Covenant at UNC-Chapel Hill are commendable. But they do not and cannot reach the many students who are not eligible for these programs and whose middle-income families cannot or will not pay the tab.

As Charlotte Observer editorial columnist Jack Betts wrote almost three years, "But as the state pursues a policy of larger and more realistic tuition levels it's worth reflecting on how splendidly that longtime tradition of 'free of expense' has served this state. It helped make North Carolina the envy of the nation. Will we be able to say the same of an increased-tuition policy? Let's all hope so."

Three years later it is hard to keep up the "hope."

And we will see how the judges rule on the coming constitutional challenge.

**************************************

D.G. Martin is the author of "Interstate Eateries" a handbook of home cooking places near North Carolina's interstate highways-available through Our State Magazine (800-948-1409 or www.ourstate.com). He is the host of UNC-TV's North Carolina Bookwatch, which airs on Sundays at 5:00 p.m. This week's (February 6) has been preempted by other programming.

Programs coming up:

February 13: Sheila Kay Adams, My Old True Love

February 20-March 20 North Carolina Bookwatch preempted by programming associated with Festival, the annual fundraising campaign.

 
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The lottery, tuition, and Robin Hood

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