Georgia lawmaker uses power of the purse to influence colleges

Mar. 28, 2017 - Atlanta - Rep. Earl Ehrhart, R - Powder Springs, presents SB 71. He managed to get his campus rape bill inserted into the bill, which passed the House. Today’s legislation included a measure to allow guns onto any campus in Georgia’s public college and university system, which passed the Georgia Senate, and the Houlse overwhelmingly approved a compromise that would expand the list of disorders eligible for treatment under the state’s nascent medical marijuana program. The 39th legislative day of the 2017 General Assembly. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM

Credit: Bob Andres

Credit: Bob Andres

Mar. 28, 2017 - Atlanta - Rep. Earl Ehrhart, R - Powder Springs, presents SB 71. He managed to get his campus rape bill inserted into the bill, which passed the House. Today’s legislation included a measure to allow guns onto any campus in Georgia’s public college and university system, which passed the Georgia Senate, and the Houlse overwhelmingly approved a compromise that would expand the list of disorders eligible for treatment under the state’s nascent medical marijuana program. The 39th legislative day of the 2017 General Assembly. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM

Some call him the 20th member of the Board of Regents.

He regularly uses his political power to influence policies he doesn’t like at Georgia’s colleges and universities, whether they be public or private. Kennesaw State, Georgia Tech, Georgia Gwinnett and Emory have all felt his wrath.

He is Earl Ehrhart, a veteran state House member whose committee helps decide how much is budgeted for higher education in Georgia.

Ehrhart, a Powder Springs Republican, is seen as a bully by some, a taxpayer champion by others. What he is not is ambiguous. From campus rape to freedom of speech to the arts, Ehrhart’s makes his opinion known and uses his position to influence how colleges punish students, protect victims of rape and spend their money. And he’s very blunt about it.

“I’m the funding source,” he said.

Georgia voters approved a constitutional amendment in the 1940s that gives the Board of Regents — whose members are appointed by the governor — authority over the state’s public college system. But that hasn’t stopped lawmakers like Ehrhart from getting involved and using state funding as a bargaining chip. The state provides about $2 billion for public colleges and borrows hundreds of millions more for construction each year, and those appropriations must be approved by lawmakers.

University System Chancellor Steve Wrigley, who has worked in state government or the system for about three decades, said there have been other lawmakers, particularly chairmen of legislative higher education committees, who have been just as involved in the workings of the system as Ehrhart.

“We’re a public entity, and we are accountable to public officials, the governor, the General Assembly, taxpayers,” Wrigley said. “I don’t think it’s out-of-bounds by any means that he raises questions about how we do certain things.

“There is no problem with him being critical. Sometimes people being critical are right.”

Ehrhart, 57, was first elected to the House in 1988, defeating veteran Democratic Rep. Joe Mack Wilson. Ehrhart showed his mettle even then, when he hammered Wilson for failing to pay property taxes. Ehrhart served one term, lost his re-election bid in 1990, then won again in 1992. He is the longest-tenured Republican in the House.

Ehrhart has served on the House Appropriations Committee, which writes state budgets, for 20 years and been chairman of the higher education subcommittee for nearly eight.

He says he is simply doing his job by raising questions.

“It’s a collaborative effort on policy,” Ehrhart said. “The taxpayers’ money is what funds the Regents in the final analysis. It’s just logical to assume that before we fund Regents’ activity, we’re going to have discussions, not only on policy but on these expenditures.”

The state constitution makes clear that the Board of Regents, not the Legislature, determine how to spend the “lump sum” of money approved by lawmakers. But if the funding gets cut by lawmakers, the board has less to allocate.

Thomas Harnisch, director of state relations and policy analysis at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, said the independence Georgia’s constitution provides is important.

“You have to have a certain level of trust in the trustees, and the Board of Regents is essentially the trustees for the state of Georgia,” he said. “You cannot have legislators micromanaging the universities.”

Ehrhart said he does not micromanage the University System or its 40,000 employees. That’s the Board of Regents’ job, he said. He has, however, used his position to challenge universities and has used the power of the purse strings to demand changes in policies.

In 2016, Ehrhart grilled top officials from Georgia TechSeveral Tech students had filed lawsuits, arguing they were forced out of the school unfairly after being accused of sexual assault.

Ehrhart and others also criticized Tech after it disciplined a fraternity accused of hurling racial slurs at a black female student. The fraternity denied the charges, and Ehrhart was outraged by what he said was a lack of due process given to the students accused of misconduct. He bluntly warned all Georgia colleges to consider how they handle similar cases.

“If you’ve got a bond project, if you don’t protect the students of this state with due process, don’t come looking for money. Period,” Ehrhart said at the time.

Ehrhart said his concerns have been “validated by the facts.”

Georgia Tech leaders, he said, determined its own policy was “trampling on due process,” and that his hearings helped bring about that conclusion.

“My concerns were we were going to be paying state taxpayer dollars in judgments and settlements” of lawsuits, he said. “I was right. As the one responsible for those taxpayer dollars, it was absolutely appropriate for me to robustly look into that.”

Those concerns led Ehrhart this year to introduce legislation mandating how colleges handle accusations of rape or sexual assault on campus. It would have prevented the schools from investigating unless police were also involved.

The bill infuriated victims’ advocates, which is ironic, given that before he first ran for the House, Ehrhart was a member of Georgians for Victims Justice and the Cobb County Victim Witness Assistance Unit. “It is time we start worrying about the rights of victims of crime and not the criminals,” Ehrhart said in one newspaper story from the time.

Ehrhart's House Bill 51 passed the House this year but failed to make it out of the Senate. `

Grace Starling was raped while in college and became a vocal opponent of Ehrhart’s methods and his bill. A Georgia State University law student, Starling became a regular fixture at the Capitol this year and focused much of her attention on Ehrhart’s operating style.

“I definitely think there is an overflow of power there,” Starling said. “It prevents (college leaders) from being able to fully do their job because they’re fearful of having their funding cut off.”

Starling also questioned why HB 51 was sent to the Appropriations Committee, and then Ehrhart’s subcommittee, to be considered. The bill had nothing to do with spending money, she said. Instead, it dealt with how colleges and universities handle claims of sexual assault.

But, having the bill sent to Ehrhart’s subcommittee allowed him to grandstand on his pet issue, Starling said.

“It’s a little frightening to me that it was able to go through that committee twice and nobody said, maybe we should put this in higher ed,” she said, referring to the Higher Education Committee.

Ehrhart also got involved at Georgia Gwinnett College after a student filed a lawsuit in December, arguing that his free speech rights were violated by the school.

Chike Uzuegbunam distributed fliers sharing his Christian faith and speaking with other students one day last summer on the Lawrenceville campus. He said school officials told him he needed to ask for permission three days in advance and limited him to only two “free speech expression” areas on campus.

Later, Uzuegbunam requested use of the free speech zones. However, campus police said they asked him to tone it down after about 20 minutes. The officer said several people had complained about the student’s rather vocal proselytizing.

Uzuegbunam said he was told he couldn’t speak in one of the permitted areas because officials received complaints about his remarks.

A few weeks after the lawsuit was filed, a concerned Ehrhart asked for a meeting with school officials, including president Stanley C. “Stas” Preczewski. Officials at the meeting said Ehrhart was trying to get the school’s side of the case.

The case again got under the skin of lawmakers, including Ehrhart, a month later when Attorney General Chris Carr’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit included language saying the plaintiff’s “open-air speaking arguably rose to the level of ‘fighting words,’” a legal phrase that implies provocation. Legislators expressed outrage at the use of the term, and Carr filed a new version.

Before he did, Ehrhart co-sponsored a bill to prohibit colleges from limiting a student’s expression or “subject a student to disciplinary action due to his or her expression because of its viewpoint or because of the reaction to or opposition to such expression by listeners or observers.”

Georgia Gwinnett, meanwhile, changed its free speech policy to make the whole campus a free-speech zone.

Ehrhart has long been a legislative patron of Kennesaw State University, but KSU too has felt his wrath. In 2016, KSU hosted an art exhibit called "Art AIDS America," which focused on the AIDS epidemic and included pieces by some artists who suffered from the disease.

Ehrhart did not see the exhibit, but was shown photographs.

He and other Cobb County Republicans took exception to a painting of a naked man with a clown mask engaged in sex with a skeleton. They also criticized pieces with images of conservative leaders — including former President Ronald Reagan, televangelist Jerry Falwell and others — that took them to task for not speaking out sooner about the crisis.

Ehrhart declared it “gratuitous,” and said “that’s not art.”

Since he became chairman of the higher education Appropriations subcommittee, the House and Senate have provided $56.6 million in new funding for buildings and infrastructure at KSU.

The chancellor, Wrigley, said Ehrhart understands the needs of colleges and has been on university campuses to see how things works.

“He’s been very supportive of our budget requests; he’s been a supporter of higher education,” he added.

In the past year, Ehrhart has also used his influence to summon changes on private college campuses. He threatened to pull state funding from Emory University if the DeKalb County school declared itself a "sanctuary" campus for undocumented students.

While the school does not get direct funding from the state, agencies and the University System of Georgia paid Emory facilities $96 million in 2015 for various services. The biggest part – about $84 million – was spent by the Department of Community Health, which administers the Medicaid program for the poor, disabled and elderly.

Ehrhart introduced, and passed, legislation this year that would prevent any school in Georgia from receiving state funds if they defy federal immigration law. Gov. Nathan Deal signedHouse Bill 37 into law in April.

The legislation is largely symbolic. Since Emory University and other colleges flirted with the “sanctuary” declaration, they have steered clear of the fight.