Speaker, staff ignored requests for additional money for children of wartime veterans scholarship

Speaker, staff ignored requests for more money

RALEIGH, N.C. (WBTV) – North Carolina House Speaker Tim Moore and a top staffer ignored repeated requests for additional funding for a scholarship that supports children of wartime veterans, new emails provided to WBTV show.

For months, WBTV has been investigating problems with the state’s scholarship for children of wartime veterans, which is administered by the North Carolina Department of Military and Veterans Affairs.

Earlier this school year, the agency told universities it was unable to pay the scholarship this semester because the general assembly hadn’t passed a final budget. After staff at the legislature’s non-partisan Fiscal Research Division said that was untrue, the agency said it didn’t have enough money to pay the full amount of aid promised to students.

Last month, as students were finalizing classes and preparing for exams heading into Thanksgiving, DMVA notified universities that it would only pay roughly half of the room and board allowance promised to students; cutting the amount from $3,000 to roughly $1,700. DMVA leaders blamed the last-minute cuts on the fact that lawmakers had not re-authorized an additional $2.4 million in funding for the scholarship on top of the nearly $9.2 million in recurring funds.

Late last week, after WBTV’s last story on the topic had run, a DMVA spokeswoman provided a string of new emails showing agency leaders had pressed Moore and a top aide, Cory Bryson, for the additional funding throughout the 2019 legislative session.

DMVA Assistant Secretary Martin Falls emailed Bryson in July, as the budget was being ironed out, to follow-up on the agency’s request for the additional $2.4 million.

“It is close to the beginning of the new college school year and we have to set the rates for room and board,” Falls said. “I have to make a decision to continue the room and board at the rate we adjusted up last year because Speaker gave us the one year, $2.4m; or, do I adjust to a lower dollar figure for all the scholarships for room and board because we are not going to get the increase?”

Fall’s email ended with a warning to Bryson about what would happen if the legislature didn’t provide the additional amount.

“This will affect over 1,200 students (I should say parents) that will have to pay the difference,” he said.

Bryson responded minutes later with a one-sentence response.

“There was no agreement in between the House and Senate on this when we went to committee,” he said.

The email thread provided by DMVA shows Falls sent one last response seeking to confirm whether that meant the agency wouldn’t get the additional $2.4 million and warning that would mean the room and board allowance would be less than what it was before the additional funding due to the increase in tuition and fees that the scholarship also had to cover. Falls’ last email got no response.

A second thread provided by DMVA shows Falls followed up with both Moore and Bryson months later, in early October.

“Speaker told me this morning he thought he had corrected this last year. He did give us the $2.4m for a one-year period. We are asking this to be a recurring amount,” Falls wrote.

In an interview with WBTV on Monday, Moore tried to explain away the fact that the additional funds weren’t appropriated.

“It’s just – it was the way it was prioritized, this along with many other good projects which are just as great as this one, will also be funded through the technical corrections bill. It’s just the way we do it sometimes,” Moore said.

But Moore joined in the chorus of officials - Republican and Democrat - who all agree the additional funds should be appropriated and the full amount of the scholarship should be paid.

“This is something that we need to do for the students of these veterans,” he said.

Moore also proposed moving the administration of the scholarship away from DMVA, an agency controlled by the governor, and under the purview of the UNC System, which is overseen by a board appointed by legislative leaders.

“We ought to consider moving the administration of this program away from where it is to put it with the university system or with the community colleges,” Moore said.

A DMVA spokeswoman also provided emails showing Falls and other DMVA officials requested meetings with senate appropriators but could not provide any evidence showing the agency made specific asks related to additional funding to anyone in the senate.

On Monday, Governor Roy Cooper ordered DMVA pay the full room and board amount promised to families for the fall semester. The additional money would be paid by taking funds from the money set aside to pay for the spring semester.

Related: Governor directs scholarships for children of wartime veterans be paid at full amount following WBTV investigation

In an interview, Cooper said he waited to take action because lawmakers had promised to appropriate the additional money this fall. Neither Cooper nor anyone from DMVA has provided evidence supporting claims that the additional money had been promised to the agency.

“When it became apparent that they weren’t going to do it, I told both the Office of Management and Budget and the Secretary of the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs that it is unconscionable that the General Assembly would leave these students high and dry and we had to find some way to do it,” Cooper said.

But in his interview, he also acknowledged that his department should have kept students and parents better informed instead of surprising them with cuts at the end of the semester.

“The department should have informed students and the schools early that, ‘hey, this money was in flux, you may not be able to get it,’” Cooper said. “And I’ve directed them that they need to be in constant communication with the schools and students, but I think that they really believed that the General Assembly wouldn’t go away without putting this extra money in place.”

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