COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) –
House legislators shot the first volley in what could be prolonged battle to reign in and wipe out the precarious fiscal slate clean at South Carolina State University.
The first shot went over the bow of the cash-strapped university just after 1 p.m. when the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Higher Education voted 3 to 1 to shut the doors of the university beginning on July 1, 2015. The school would be closed for fiscal year 2015-2016 and reopen in 2017.
During that time, a Blue Ribbon Committee would start the university from scratch after firing, dismissing, and terminating everyone from the Board of Trustees to regular university employees.
The state of South Carolina would also be on the hook for all the university’s debts and loans.
As for students, the plan would help them relocate to other schools in the state if they maintained a 2.5 GPA.
Higher Education Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Jim Merrill said the vote is the House’s way of saying they still have not seen a definitive plan from the university about how to deal with their monetary troubles.
“It may go through because of the level of frustration,” Merrill said. “Most of the presentations we heard from State were just unacceptable. They weren’t taking it seriously.”
The proviso then went to the Subcommittee on Provisos, who voted in favor of carrying over debate on the plan until the House adjourned on Wednesday.
But subcommittee members did take several minutes to debate the measure and add at least one amendment from Rep. Chip Limehouse that would dismiss each member of the Board of Trustees but allow the university to continue operating.
Debate became heated at times with Rep. Kenny Bingham venting his frustration.
“I’m not supporting more money going to SC State University until they learn to live within their means,” Bingham said. “I didn’t put them in this situation. We provided them the funds that were asked for.”
Merrill, who is also a member of the Proviso Subcommittee, said the plan needs to be fleshed out in greater detail, but he believes the move is warranted because there seems to be an unwillingness by the institution to make the cuts that are needed.
“Much like if it was home, you reach the point where the bank is going to take your home,” Merrill said. “It would be my hope that if this were adopted, in one year, they [SC State] would start out without debt.”
“I don’t think it’s the intention of anybody to wipe SC State off the planet,” Merrill said. “Nobody feels worse about this than our committee.”
State officials have already floated a life line to the financially beleaguered school to the tune of $12 million from the state’s reserve fund over the next three years.
University President Thomas Elzey just two weeks ago told the Higher Education and Technical Colleges Subcommittee that he and his administration will not be playing games with the numbers as had been happening in the past.
“We are taking steps, in my opinion, in order to have a university that continues to provide the quality education that we expect and that our students deserve,” Elzey said on Jan. 28 during testimony. “I think we’ve done a tremendous job in making the adjustments we’ve made without having the kind of disruptions that could have occurred.”
“We’re right on the edge,” Elzey said. “We’re close to the edge with regard to making those adjustments that would meet the requirements for, as you say, to stop the bleeding.”
Snapping his fingers to make a point, Elzey made it clear to the committee that fixing the university’s fiscal problems will not happen overnight. “It is very very difficult to do it just like that,” he said.
Meanwhile, Gov. Nikki Haley’s office released a statement, saying she understands the frustrations of the subcommittee.
“SC State’s leadership has been unable to provide straight answers on the condition of the schools finances for months, something she finds totally unacceptable,” Haley spokeswoman Chaney Adams said.
If the plan passes the Proviso Subcommittee, it would then head to the full House Ways and Means Committee next week.
As for the university, they released a short statement on its Facebook paging vowing to mobilize school supporters to help “kill the measure.” School officials also expect to hold a news conference Tuesday at 6 p.m.
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