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Bar lobbyists from UNC Board of Governors, a new bill says. 3 of them are members now.

The (Raleigh) News & Observer logo The (Raleigh) News & Observer 5 days ago Lucille Sherman and Kate Murphy, The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.)

Apr. 6—RALEIGH — A Republican lawmaker in his first full term as state senator is moving to eliminate a layer of political influence from the powerful body that sets policy and influences the priorities of North Carolina's 16 public universities.

A bill filed Monday by Sen. Jim Perry, of Kinston, would bar the state legislature from appointing lobbyists to the UNC System Board of Governors. If signed into law, Senate Bill 546 would cut off one way some lawmakers influence the state's higher education system by appointing close allies and donors, potentially making the board more independent.

The UNC System BOG is in some ways viewed as an extension of North Carolina's General Assembly. In recent years, the Republican majority has stacked the board with 24 members, flushing it of Democrats. Three members are currently lobbyists — Reggie Holley, David Powers and Thom Goolsby — and one is a former lobbyist. Others include donors, former lawmakers or champions of Republican policies.

Perry's bill would prevent lobbyists from trying to balance the interests of the UNC System with those of clients who want certain legislation passed and lawmakers whose support they need to bring those bills across the finish line. Some lobbyists with big-name clients also have the power to direct campaign finance money to legislators, said longtime campaign finance watchdog Bob Hall.

"They get appointed because they developed a cozy relationship with legislators," Hall said. "They're a part of the good ol' boy network and become enmeshed in that good ol' boy system. Legislators can feel better putting them on the board as a bit of reward but also a safe appointment that they know won't rock the boat. The whole thing is just very incestuous."

Democrats did the same thing when they were in the majority, Hall said.

Lobbyists' role

In this year's legislative session, lawmakers filled 12 seats for board members with expiring terms and one additional seat to replace Darrell Allison.

Allison is an advocate of school choice and a former lobbyist. He resigned from the board to become chancellor of Fayetteville State University, which was met with criticism from some students, faculty and alumni.

State leaders had an opportunity to improve the racial diversity of UNC System leaders, most of whom are white men. However, not much changed with the new appointees in terms of either political makeup or the number of women and people of color.

Another prominent lobbyist, Tom Fetzer, resigned from the board last year after becoming involved in several controversies. Then in March, Fetzer sent a text message saying he was putting together a fundraiser for Republican Rep. John Bell, which Fetzer and Bell later said was a mistake.

Holley, a lobbyist reappointed to the board this year, has close ties with House Speaker Tim Moore, a News & Observer investigation found in October.

If the legislation passes, lobbyists like Holley would be able to finish serving their terms. But lobbyists could not be appointed moving forward, and future board members would have to resign if they or their spouses become lobbyists.

"Doing this would enable us to avoid any appearance of potential conflicts and prevent good ideas from being discounted because of assumptions of someone's motive," Perry said.

Most public institutions are governed by people appointed by state legislators or governors, so it's not uncommon to have boards align with the political powers in the state, said Henry Stoever, president and CEO of the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges. And it's not an issue to have a former state legislator or a lobbyist on a board, he said. But it becomes a problem if those board members only listen to who put them there and only do what the governor or state legislature wants them to do, Stoever said.

"Board members need to exercise independence of thought regardless of how they got to that board," Stoever said.

With dozens of other bills filed ahead of the Senate's Tuesday filing deadline, it's unlikely the bill will be heard or voted on anytime soon. And because the majority party benefits from appointing political allies to the board, it may not receive broad support.

If signed into law, however, the bill would also bar lawmakers from appointing state legislators and employees or officers of the state, university system or its constituent institutions to the Board of Governors. Spouses would also be ineligible for appointment.

In its current form, the bill would not restrict lobbyists from being appointed to the boards of trustees of the schools within the UNC System, which each consist of 13 voting members. Four of those members on each board are appointed by the legislature.

Rep. Julia Howard, a Republican from Mocksville, filed legislation last week that would add more political influence to the board. It would require that four nonvoting members of the General Assembly be appointed to the board for two-year terms.

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