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Insights and Observations

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Henry's Highlights
Thursday, July 15, 2004

By Henry Hinton

Heart center dream closes in on reality


Hospital Foundation underwrites Walker Center outreach initiative

A grant from the Pitt Memorial Hospital Foundation will enable the Walker Center at East Carolina University to bring bowling, horseback riding and adaptive SCUBA diving to Pitt County's disabled population, the school's News Bureau has reported...  More...


East Carolina University officials got the news they had been hoping for Wednesday afternoon when word came from Raleigh that the Eastern North Carolina Cardiovascular Diseases Institute would get funded by the legislature immediately.

That information leaked out of Raleigh late Wednesday afternoon after a closed door meeting in which the top leaders of the General Assembly produced a compromise on a bill that funds the ECU project and a lot of other initiatives.

Once this bill is passed on the floor of both chambers and signed by the governor, the university can expect to receive $30 million this year and the same amount in 2005.

The heart center bill, which has appeared to be on life support for about two weeks, includes a few surprises for other projects around the state. In fact, one might say the bill contains a little something for nearly every corner of the state.

The final compromise not only includes funding for the two projects approved by the UNC Board of Governors — the ECU initiative and the UNC-Chapel Hill Cancer Hospital — it also promises money for other health care facilities around the state.

There are even some late surprises, including some military funding that had previously not been associated with this initiative.

Senate President Pro Tempore Marc Basnight had been hesitant to agree to funding in this bill for projects that have not yet undergone university system scrutiny. He has consistently stated that he felt the General Assembly should not supersede the Board of Governors on funding requests from individual schools.

House co-Speakers Jim Black and Richard Morgan have been just as adamant that without funding for projects at UNC-Charlotte, UNC-Asheville and Elizabeth City State University, they would be unable to get the evenly divided (60 Democrats and 60 Republicans) House to go along with the Greenville and Chapel Hill projects.

The compromise announced Wednesday speaks to those concerns. The other three projects will receive $75 million in this budget year and $23 next year provided they are approved by the UNC Board of Governors. UNC-Chapel Hill will receive $110 million in this budget year and $70 million next year for its cancer hospital.

The ECU project is the research part of a new heart hospital and institute which will be a joint venture with University Health Systems. Total cost, including the hospital’s part, will be in the range of $150 million. ECU was asking for $60 million from the state.

with Henry

Audio Archive: Replay Wednesday's program with co- host Suzanne Sartelle and telephone guest Randolph Chitwood discussing the General Assembly's move towards funding East Carolina University's long-planned Cardiovascular Diseases Institute: Select clip...

What was a total surprise in the compromise was the addition of $50 million for other system schools including Western Carolina University, Winston-Salem State University, Fayetteville State University, UNC-Pembroke, UNC-Greensboro and NC A&T State University. Those schools will split that amount for planning future projects at their individual campuses.

But wait, there’s more. There is also $30 million to be spent over the next two years for new juvenile detention centers and $45 million to be used over the next two years to preserve land for state parks and near military bases, an effort requested by The Governor’s Advisory Commission on Military Affairs last year.

That piece of the bill is significant and hints that Governor Mike Easley was part of the negotiations with Basnight and the co-speakers. Easley’s staff was rumored to have been closely involved with the compromise, a clear indication that he does not intend to veto the bill once it is passed by both chambers.

What this all means is that ECU and Chapel Hill will get their projects funded but only after some significant horse trading was done with legislators around the state. The bill will undoubtedly be criticized by some members of the legislature, particularly in the House, because of its sheer size and amount of expenditures over the next two years; $310 million this budget year and $153 million next.

A joint statement released by Basnight, Black and Morgan early Wednesday night defends the expenditures by saying the bill will create jobs and save lives in North Carolina.

Here is an excerpt from the joint statement:

“The university projects are not only a tremendous investment that will improve health care and education across North Carolina, but also will have an enormous impact on our overall economy. These projects will create thousands of high-wage, high-skilled jobs, including many in the indispensable health-care industry. Such important jobs will help us replace some of the more than 150,000 manufacturing jobs that we have lost in the last several years.”

The statement tries to head off the inevitable criticism that the projects will jeopardize the state’s fiscal health. It mentions that the state is ranked fourth in the country for fiscal responsibility, and North Carolina’s debt ratios are already below the national average and better than most AAA-rated states.

The methodology of funding the projects has also been a bone of contention between the leadership camps. The statement is fuzzy on just how the projects will be funded but says the bill will allow the state to improve its ability to manage its debut.

According to the release, the bill will create the Debt Affordability Advisory Committee to advise on the state's debt capacity for the upcoming 10 years, issue guidelines on debt management policies that include target and ceiling ratios. The bill also authorizes the use of real estate certificates of participation financing to lower yearly debt payments, and asks the state Treasurer to study other alternative financing methods that might be beneficial to the state

Famed ECU heart surgeon Dr. Randolph Chitwood, who will be the heart institute’s director, got the news late Wednesday that his dream was close to becoming a reality.

“This is a real boon for eastern North Carolina and the patients and people of eastern North Carolina,” said Chitwood on a phone call to Talk 1070 and Cable 7’s Talk of the Town program. “People are now beginning to believe it will soon be a reality and I sure am happy about that.”

Chitwood agreed that the new ECU center will take the Brody School of Medicine and University Health Systems to a new level of prominence on the national scene.

“There’s no question about that,” said Chitwood. “We’re showing people what we’re developing here and we’ll be able to recruit the top specialists and top primary care doctors.”

When questioned when the center might actually be built and in operation, Chitwood seemed very optimistic.

“We can go a lot faster than you might think,” he said. “We already have the designers on board so we are at least six months ahead in hoping that we would get this money. I think in three years we can have a building. We have the land and the site, so we’re ready to go.”

The bill is expected to go to the floor of both chambers for ratification as soon as Thursday and it will then be sent to Governor Mike Easley for his signature.

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02/23/2007 10:13:47 AM

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