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Henry's Highlights
Thursday, December 11, 2003

By Henry Hinton
Broadcaster & Owner of Greenville Cable 7

Down East 'chip' has politicos scrambling


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 Brody facility.

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 reality.

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 2004 session.

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 the Senate.

"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

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