But you knew that. Whenever a UNC system team — whether it’s Wolfpack women’s tennis or Tar Heel men’s basketball — gives a free or partially free ride to an athlete in the form of a “scholarship,” the taxpayers eat the cost, directly or indirectly. After all, the care & feeding of the 16-campus system is far more than income from the various endowments and booster clubs can handle, and even after tuitions etcetera are collected from the paying customers, it still costs us a bundle.

But here’s a question, which we raise in connection with Rep. Pricey Harrison’s proposed legislation to cut into the state subsidy for athletes who come here from out of state. It is: Does it make a difference whether we count them as “in-state” or “out-of-state”?

It makes a difference to the various booster clubs (the Rams Club, Wolfpack Club, and so on) whose contributions are used to “pay for” athletic scholarships. Take Wayne Ellington, Tar Heel basketball star from Pennsylvania. Were he not an athlete, he’d be charged out-of-state tuition rates to attend UNC-CH. But because he’s an athlete, and because of a peculiar state law brought to you by the Rams Club, Wolfpack Club, and so on, he’s counted as an in-state student for purposes of costing out the tab for athletic scholarships. The “cost” of this law to taxpayers, according to the General Assembly’s fiscal research staff, is some $10.5 million a year.

But is it really? Ellington’s not paying anything either way, and the cost of his education doesn’t change regardless of how he’s counted. So there’s a “cost” only if you assume that the booster clubs, were they not given this favored treatment, would reach deeper into their pockets and hand over the difference — the $10.5 million a year — to the various UNC campuses.

It’s a theory worth testing, especially with the state budget in a $2 billion deficit dumper today and the red ink flowing like an open wound toward the 2010 fiscal year.

So says Rep. Harrison, a progressive stalwart from Guilford County. And so says Bob Hall, of Democracy North Carolina, who ties the current law to campaign contributions made to state legislators by the rich folks in the booster clubs. Maybe if they weren’t handing out so much in the form of political largesse, they’d be better university boosters?

Says Hall:

For those following the controversy involving taxpayer subsidies to the private backers of out-of-state university athletes, here’s a statistic for you:

The two political action committees (PACs) heavily financed by these same athletic boosters have given $1 million to state politicians in the past four years.

Citizens for Higher Education PAC, which is interlocked with trustees and Rams Club boosters of the University of NC at Chapel Hill, gave the lion’s share, $910,000 – ($485,000 in 2007-08 and $425,000 in 2005-2006). It’s one of the five largest PACs giving to candidates this election cycle and ranked number 2 in giving to legislative candidates in the 2006 cycle.

The University Development Coalition PAC, an advocate for NC State University that only began giving political contributions in 2007, added $100,500 during this election cycle.

Here’s another statistic: 130 or 76% of the 170 members of the NC General Assembly today have received contributions from one or both of these two PACs, with more than 90 members receiving at least $3,000 during the 2005 to 2008 period.

The top four recipients of this largess are:

· Marc Basnight – $24,000

· Joe Hackney – $24,000

· Tony Rand – $18,000

· David Hoyle – 18,000

State legislators have again introduced a bill to end the subsidy for university boosters who provide full scholarships to out-of-state athletes. Instead of paying the real cost of tuition, room and board for these students, a special provision adopted in 2005 allows campuses in the UNC system to reduce those charges to the in-state rate, effectively requiring NC taxpayers to pay the difference between the real and discounted price.

The Legislative Fiscal Research Division estimates the cost to taxpayers is $10.5 million a year. See its report when this bill last made its way through the state House in 2007, only to die in the state Senate.

Democratic Rep. Pricey Harrison, one of the bill’s main sponsors (with Republican Rep. George Cleveland), told reporters she had higher hopes to eliminate the $10.5 million subsidy in the face of the budget crisis, and pointed out that it amounts to a subsidy for well-off members of the Rams Club, Wolfpack Club and the Pirate Club, the sports booster groups for UNC, NCSU and ECU respectively.