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Henry's Highlights
Friday, May 14, 2004

By Henry Hinton
Broadcaster & Owner of Greenville Cable 7

Pulse rate about to rise on cardio center debate


The biggest economic and health care advancement since the ECU School of Medicine came to Greenville in the 'seventies is about to come to the floor of the North Carolina General Assembly.

The Eastern Carolina Cardiovascular Diseases Institute, headed by famed heart surgeon Dr. Randolph Chitwood, will be voted up or down in Raleigh very soon. Leaders in the House and Senate are scrambling to find a way to make this happen financially before the short session of the legislature ends in just weeks.

It may not be as simple as once thought.

Before the public debate even begins, there is some back room negotiating underway to answer three very important questions.

  1. Will the appropriation include more than the request from ECU for assistance in financing its strategic initiative and the request from UNC-Chapel Hill for funding for a new state cancer hospital?

  2. Legislators from across the state are saying, “What about something for my district?” If the bill comes through and includes only the Chapel Hill and ECU projects, will there be enough votes in both chambers to pass it?

  3. The most important question of all — and perhaps the most controversial one: How will these projects be funded?

Creativity faces hurdles

Democratic Co-Speaker of the House Jim Black has quietly been promoting a new and innovative way of underwriting these capital projects called RIBET. No, it has nothing to do with frogs, but Black wants to use it to get ECU its heart center.

RIBET stands for Real Estate Bonded Investment Trust. In short, the concept would be a legal form of using the state’s massive real estate interests, including the buildings in Raleigh where state government happens, as collateral on loans for the state.

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The problem with the concept is that it is complicated and has never been used before. While Black is the champion of the idea, there are those who are very skeptical it will work.

Black should be applauded for creative thinking and trying to find ways to bankroll vital projects without raising taxes. However, if the plan cannot garner widespread support, it could do more harm than good if the session drags on without reaching consensus.

State Treasurer Richard Moore and Governor Mike Easley are among the skeptics on this new funding idea. It is unclear if Senate President Pro Tem Marc Basnight and Republican Co-Speaker Richard Morgan would go for it.

On the other side, the Senate is working on a bill that would fund the programs with a more traditional bond strategy. There is a rumor that the senate bill would use Certificates of Participation as the funding mechanism. COPS are a way of raising money with bonds that do not have to be voted on by the entire electorate. This method of financing has become very popular with city and county governments in recent years.

Greenville invades Raleigh

A large group of Greenville community leaders from the areas of business, medicine and the university visited lawmakers in the legislature on Wednesday to lobby for the passage of funding for the new ECU center. The effort was spearheaded by the Greenville-Pitt County Chamber of Commerce.

We learned that most leaders remain very positive that funding will eventually be worked out, but there is no question the ECU project could become a political football as it did in the 2003 session.

At this moment there is no general agreement on the best method to fund it. The leadership has several issues working against it. There are many Republicans in the House who signed a pledge last year that they would not raise taxes under any circumstances.

Basnight has constantly pushed the idea of an additional cigarette tax to make the projects go. Speaker Morgan and other Republicans have said a resounding no to that idea.

Whispers around Raleigh indicate the Senate will pass some version of a bill next week to move the ECU project along. However, if it includes a funding mechanism that will not be accepted by the House, which is fifty percent Republican, the project could become legislative fallout as it did last year.

Chitwood itching to go

Dr. Chitwood, meanwhile, is ready to launch this lofty vision in Greenville. His timetable calls for him to start recruiting top heart people from around the country as soon as this legislative session ends.

There is great hope that steel will be flying on the construction of the new center by early fall. Losing this project or another slowdown would be detrimental to an initiative which deserves funding immediately.

The cause is just. Eastern North Carolina leads the nation in an non-coveted category: heart disease. In addition, the region is in need of more economic stimulus.

Lawmakers have given lip service to this project for two years but have yet to fund it.

The worst thing that could happen is to realize that the proposed Cardiovascular Diseases Institute has fallen prey to a mix of partisan politics and swollen egos among state leaders who cannot or will not put aside their own agendas to make this work.

After spending a full day and night in Raleigh on Wednesday lobbying for the project’s success, I wish I could report that this short legislative session will produce a win for ECU.

Unfortunately, that prediction would be premature. The outcome for this project and ECU is still very much in doubt for this year. There is much to be worked out.

Pork-barrel politics a factor?

Lawmakers should fund the program this time around and work together for the funding mechanism instead of sliding into the game of one-upmanship that appears to be developing again.

The ECU project has merit regardless of what legislators want built in their individual districts. It should be passed immediately and Dr. Chitwood should set about doing and directing the research he envisions.

People from all over North Carolina will benefit from the work that will be done at this facility, which will quickly become one of the top heart hospitals in America.

What is more important to the entire state than saving lives of our citizens?

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02/23/2007 10:13:34 AM

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