Insights and Observations
Thursday, December 11, 2003
By Henry Hinton
Broadcaster & Owner
of Greenville Cable 7
Down East 'chip' has politicos
If it is true that the squeaky wheel gets the grease,
perhaps the squeaking that has come out of the east in recent weeks has done
some good when it comes to the future of East Carolina University.
After spending the better part of 2003 trying to get
legislative support for a new cardiovascular diseases institute at the Brody
School of Medicine, it now appears that university and hospital officials in
Greenville have support from the top players in the General Assembly.
Perhaps all of the political wrangling that has
occurred in Pitt County recently has struck a nerve with heavyweights in
Raleigh. It appears something good is finally coming out of the “chip on the
shoulder” attitude that ECU partisans have displayed since things seemed to
start heading south.
Throughout the 2003 legislative session in Raleigh,
Senate President Pro Tempore Marc Basnight, arguably the most powerful man
in the state, and others in leadership positions touted the need for the new
Already Pitt Memorial Hospital had committed $150
million to build one of the top heart hospitals in the nation. In 2002,
world renowned heart surgeon Dr. Randolph Chitwood proposed to the
university the idea of the research institute as an addendum to the project
which would make Greenville, NC, the center of the universe in the nation
for heart disease study and patient care. Since our region is known as the
“stroke belt,” it seems this would be a great venue for such a new project.
Chitwood, by the way, was being recruited away from ECU
by Harvard University about the same time. To the Board of Trustees credit,
they understood that Chitwood was the cornerstone of marketing growth and
credibility for the med school.
The trustees took the proposal as an opportunity to
take the university’s reputation to another level — not to mention the fact
that agreeing to seek funding for the institute would solidify Chitwood and
his work as part of ECU for years to come. So, they began to seek state
funding for the additional $60 million necessary to make the project a
At the same time, UNC-Chapel Hill was pushing the
legislature for monies to upgrade its cancer hospital. The two projects were
mentioned together throughout the session. Basnight and others floated the
idea of funding the two new medical projects with bonds and tobacco taxes.
Neither were met with open arms by a legislature that
had begun with a “no new taxes” theme from both parties. Eventually the idea
of funding either project in the 2003 session looked very dim. Then, on the
last day of the session a bill entitled a technical corrections act was
introduced into the Senate by Basnight.
ECU officials were stunned to find out that the bill
contained $180 million for the Chapel Hill cancer hospital and zero for the
Greenville initiative. The House refused to pass the bill in that form and
negotiated late into the night to include something to help ECU get started
on its project as well.
When there appeared there would be no agreement, the
House adjourned and left both universities with nothing.
That set off a finger-pointing contest that has
continued right through this week.
Adding potential insult to an already boiling pot, Dr.
Bill Muse was released by the Board of Governors under request by Dr. Molly
Broad, president of the UNC system.
While seemingly justified by reports of audit problems
and personnel unrest, the move was made with no input at the local level and
came as a surprise to many community leaders who had worked closely with
Muse to forge a relationship between town and gown.
Then weeks later news leaked out that new district maps
being drawn were going to effectively eliminate Pitt County’s ability to
elect a senator from within the county.
As all of this began to unfold there were closed door
meetings between local elected officials and power players in Raleigh to
make the discord known. The notion that ECU and folks east of I-95 were
being given short shrift began to take hold.
A defection by an angry politician even surfaced when
Senator Tony Moore switched parties saying that his party had sold himself
and ECU out.
Has the message finally gotten through? Has the discord
finally been heard?
Last Thursday, Co-Speaker of the House Jim Black came
to Greenville at the behest of local elected officials, including
Representative Marion McLawhorn, to visit the cardiovascular center for
himself. While here, he pledged his support for the new ECU project in the
He also did not let the opportunity go by without
firing a shot over Basnight’s bow and issuing a challenge to the leader of
"Sen. (Marc) Basnight has said the Senate is ready and
willing to support the project and asked the House members from here, ‘Where
is your man?”’ Black said in the local newspaper. "Well, their man is here.
"I'm here to tell you our side is there," Black said.
"For one side to say, 'We're ready to do this and this side isn't' is just
bunk. I came here today to give my support and the support of the House of
Representatives for this project."
Not to be outdone, Basnight quickly replied to those
comments in the Daily Reflector by firing off a letter to the editor
pledging his support and reminding readers that he had proposed two forms of
funding the medical projects that were rejected. He did not, however, offer
an explanation as to why his bill for UNC-Chapel Hill ignored the
simultaneous efforts by ECU.
Basnight added, “I applaud the speaker's commitment to
this important project and look forward to working with the House as soon as
possible to make it a reality for Pitt County and eastern North Carolina.”
There is still a ways to go to make this project a
reality for ECU and Eastern North Carolina but it is amazing how a little
squeaking does indeed attract some grease.
Now, it seems, the leaders of both chambers are ready
to step up and take the bull by the horns to get it done (not to mention
getting the the credit). That does not mean the money will be found in a
tough economy to make it happen. At least they are getting the message that
this community and university intend to fight for our fair share.
These verbal commitments are positive steps in helping
ECU and Greenville work toward a world class facility that will not only
make us the leader in heart disease research, it will also be good economic
news to an area of the state that needs a shot in the arm.
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02/23/2007 10:11:58 AM