Politics & Government

Clemson enterprise bill supporters vow another try

A bill that would allow Clemson University to operate some of its non-academic functions more like a business didn’t make it through the House before the legislative session ended this week, but supporters say they will make another push for it next year.

Critics fear the legislation would create a system that is unaccountable to taxpayers — a fear the university says is unfounded.

The Senate passed the bill on a 37-4 vote on May 9, and it was referred to the Ways and Means Committee five days later. The committee hadn’t taken it up by the time the regular session ended Thursday.

Rep. B.R. Skelton, a retired Clemson professor who sponsored a House version of the bill and is a member of the Ways and Means Committee, said the House didn’t have time to get to the bill because it arrived so late in the session.

“I think the Senate did a pretty good job on this version, but we haven’t had a hearing on the House version of the bill, and it’s my understanding that that will be looked at over the summer,” he said.

“I’m looking forward to our taking it up in January and giving it a full debate and hopefully passing it.”

Legislation left in committee at the end of this session can be taken up next year, the second year of the two-year session.

The bill would give the university’s board of trustees the authority to move such functions as athletics, research and economic development into a new “enterprise division” that would be able to do such things as buy and sell property without going through the process required for state agencies.

It’s needed, Clemson officials say, because the bureaucracy of state government frequently inhibits the institution’s ability to undertake projects with private business and industry in a timely manner to respond to market conditions.

Clemson spokeswoman Cathy Sams said university officials hoped the bill would be passed this year but recognized that the General Assembly might not be able to get it done and prepared accordingly.

“We’re pleased with the support that the bill has received so far, and we anticipate that we’ll be able to continue the momentum next year,” she said. “The sponsors and others recognize that this legislation would not only be good for Clemson, it would be good for the state.”

Sen. Larry Martin, who sponsored the Senate version of the bill, said he has heard concerns from some people who fear Clemson would use the legislation to sell off property it owns, particularly chunks of the 17,500-acre Clemson University Experimental Forest.

“Any more, we live in a world where folks are suspicious about everything, and I guess in some respects for good reason,” the Pickens Republican said.

“But I don’t see Clemson divesting itself of significant property holdings, particularly its forest land holdings because of its tremendous importance to the research it does and all that surrounds that part of its mission to a huge segment of our state’s economy.”

Sams said the legislation “very specifically defines the type of assets that can be moved to the Enterprise Division, and the forest would not be in that category of assets.”

The South Carolina Policy Council, a nonpartisan, tax-exempt public policy research and education foundation, has taken issue with the legislation.

In an analysis of the bill, the council said, “Higher education institutions are already some of the biggest drivers of budget increases; creating a new unaccountable division for a major university would just create another avenue for university bureaucrats to spend at will, with no regard for the taxpayer.

“The procurement exemptions, moreover, open the door for cronyism between university buyers and their friends’ companies.”

Sams said the Enterprise Division would report not only to the university’s Board of Trustees but also submit its policies to the State Budget and Control Board, give regular reports to the governor and the chairmen of the Senate Finance and House Ways and Means committees, as well as undergo an annual independent audit.

Although it would be released from the state procurement system, it would develop a procurement code that mirrors it, requiring competitive bidding, she said.

It would take university employees’ jobs that would fall under the Enterprise Division out of the state personnel system, but they would still be in the state retirement system and have the same health insurance benefits, Sams said.

The change wouldn’t affect undergraduate education programs, university officials have said.

Other universities have had success with such reorganizations, including the Medical University of South Carolina and some of the state’s technical colleges, Sams said.

Some of the provisions of the bill would offer the kind of exemptions to the state procurement code the Budget and Control Board granted Clemson during construction of its International Center for Automotive Research in Greenville in 2004.

Clemson had requested exemption because BMW had to meet deadlines and the company said the state procurement process requirements for advertising, bidding and appeals would delay the construction by at least six months, The News reported at the time.