Politics & Government

Watered down college reform bill advances

A bill to make broad and significant regulatory changes for the state's colleges and universities made it through a state legislative committee Wednesday, but not before an amendment made its changes much less broad and much less significant.

The previous version of the bill, passed by the state House of Representatives, would have stripped the State Budget and Control Board of its final authority over college development plans and given schools the power to write their own, separate human-resources rules.

An amendment, added to the bill as it passed the Senate Education Committee Wednesday on a voice vote, restored much of the Budget and Control Board's authority over higher education. The amendment also called for the creation of a single set of human-resources rules for colleges and universities rather than allowing them to write their own regulations.

Legislators said they wanted to strike a balance between giving school officials relief from what they have complained is a lengthy and inefficient state approval process and making sure the state retains appropriate oversight of its extensive system of taxpayer-supported colleges and universities.

The amended bill could be debated and passed in the Senate as early as Tuesday.

Higher-education officials, knowing the final version of the legislation is not yet set in stone, were careful in responding to the amended bill.

"While the amended bill is helpful, it does not go as far as we would like," said Shirley Hinson, director of government relations for the College of Charleston. "Perhaps some compromise is possible in the next stage when the full Senate debates the bill."

In addition to keeping the Budget and Control Board in its role as the final authority on big development plans, the legislation would give colleges and universities more freedom to buy real estate and modestly adjust the cost of development projects without the extensive set of additional approvals now required.

Margaret Lamb, a spokeswoman for the University of South Carolina, said officials there are happy the bill is moving forward.

"Not only will it help us operate more efficiently, but it will be a cost savings to us, and both are very important in this tough economy," she said.

Changes proposed in the previous version of the bill have long been sought by college officials who argued they would allow schools to operate more efficiently and develop less expensively.

In giving final authority over college development plans to the Joint Bond Review Committee rather than to the Budget and Control Board, gubernatorial power over college development plans would be effectively ended.

The governor is one of the five voting members of the board, but the bond review committee is made up entirely of state legislators.

Gov. Mark Sanford, a critic of the way higher education is structured in South Carolina who is viewed as an obstacle to college-development plans, did not like the previous version of the bill.

Wednesday's amendment met with his approval.

"We're obviously encouraged that some of our concerns have been addressed," Sanford spokesman Ben Fox said. "We're encouraged by that progress."