As part of his campaign to promote Connect NC, the $2 billion bond issue that comes before voters Tuesday, Gov. Pat McCrory gave his view of the bond’s benefits at a public appearance Wednesday afternoon at University of North Carolina Wilmington.
"Many of our community colleges and universities have grown like we’ve never seen before. Some are in bad shape; some need additional space. The longer it takes, the more expensive it is to do it," McCrory said about pending projects at the afternoon panel talk, which was attended by local political and business leaders as well as university officials.
"North Carolina has not had a bond referendum since 2000, and we have gained two million people. It’s like the state of Nebraska moving to North Carolina. Are we going to keep up? Are we going to react to growth or prepare for it?” he said.
Connect NC, which was approved by the General Assembly last year but must still gain voter approval during the March 15 primary, would provide funding for higher education capital improvements, water and sewer projects statewide, a new Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, improvements to National Guard facilities and a new Africa Pavilion at the N.C. Zoo, among other projects.
Joining McCrory at the event, billed as a bond panel discussion, were Susan Kluttz, secretary of the N.C. Department of Natural and Cultural Resources; Greg Lusk, head of the N.C. National Guard; UNCW chancellor Jose Sartarelli; and Susanne Adams, president of Brunswick Community College. Each gave a short summary of what the bond funds would do for their areas.
UNCW would be a $66 million beneficiary of the bond
, the funds earmarked for construction of a 165,000-square-foot facility to house academic programs in the university’s College of Health and Human Services, the Center for Healthy Communities, veterans center, service learning center and related labs and classrooms “that are critical to UNCW’s ability to produce more health and human services professionals.,” according to a statement issued in September by UNCW spokeswoman Janine Iamunno.
Brunswick Community College and Cape Fear Community College would also receive bond monies, if the proposal is approved. BCC’s allocation would be nearly $2.9 million; CFCC’s would be $5.9 million, both for new construction, repairs and renovations. Adams said BCC will use the money to repurpose an existing, under-utilized building to house its Allied Health program.
At the event in Wilmington on Wednesday, McCrory said there was a skills gap in the country, paricularly in area such as health care professional, engineering and basic trades like welding.
“If we do not fill these jobs, businesses will go elsewhere," he said.
"We’re not giving chancellors a blank check," McCrory said, adding that the line items for proposed bond projects were aligned to meet skill gaps.
Other area proposed projects are Fort Fisher State Recreation Area ($1.1 million) and Carolina Beach State Park ($855,000).
McCrory and other state officials are promoting the general obligation bond as a way to “pay for 50-year assets with 20-year financing,” according to the Connect NC website
. Proponents tout current low interest rates, overdue infrastructure upgrades in the state and North Carolina’s growing population as reasons for making these investments now.
“No tax increases are necessary to finance the bond, given our strong revenue growth and ample debt service capacity,” the website states. “We will continue to balance the budget and uphold our position as one of only 10 states to have earned the coveted Triple A bond rating from all three major ratings agencies.”
There is, however, opposition to the bond. Rep. Rick Catlin (R-New Hanover) says he is planning to vote against the bond referendum.
"I supported the original Connect NC Bond that the Governor and (NCDOT) Sec. [Tony] Tata were working on to grow our state's transportation infrastructure," he said in an email Wednesday. "I do not support the present legislative version that took away all funding for our transportation infrastructure.
"I respect all voters for and against the bond, but I will vote no with hope that we can restore the important and much-needed investments in the original version."
An organized anti-bond effort, called NC Against the Bond
, questions backers’ claims that the bond would not raise taxes, points out that there are no transportation projects remaining in what was originally touted as a transportation bond and asks whether funds would go toward the targeted projects or be redirected to other projects once the bond gained voter approval.
Mark Lanier, assistant to the chancellor at UNCW, has studied Connect NC and says that there will be no tax increase.
"The state is retiring old debt fast enough - principal and interest - to pay for new debt. No new revenues are needed," he said Wednesday, citing information from the governor's office, the state treasurer's office, the state budget office and sources "from both sides of the political aisle."
McCrory’s original proposal for Connect NC was for a nearly $3 billion bond, split between transportation projects and infrastructure needs statewide. The General Assembly pared back the package, in part because the legislature has kept money in the state’s Highway Trust Fund, which for some years was tapped for other uses.
The ability to keep transportation funds in the highway fund resulted in an additional $705 million over two years to use for projects, according to the office of Sen. Michael Lee (R-New Hanover) in an email statement in October.