Besides weighing in on assorted candidates for public office, voters in the March 15 primaries will also have the chance to help decide whether North Carolina should issue $2 billion worth of bonds to address various infrastructure needs.
The Connect NC campaign would fund upgrades for the state’s university system and community colleges as well as parks, National Guard armories and water and sewer projects.
In Western North Carolina, $110 million would pay for a new science, technology, engineering and math building at Western Carolina University. UNC Asheville would get $21.1 million to improve its facilities, while $38.9 million would be divided among the region’s community colleges. An additional $13.2 million would be allocated for renovations and improvements in WNC state parks, including Grandfather Mountain, Lake James and Chimney Rock.
Gov. Pat McCrory has touted the bond issue as a way to address critical infrastructure needs while preparing for continued population growth in North Carolina. The move is supported by McCrory’s Democratic challenger, Attorney General Roy Cooper, and legislators on both sides of the aisle.
State Rep. John Ager, whose 115th District covers northern and eastern Buncombe County, says he’s “in full support of the bond issue,” noting that “Institutions in North Carolina have been deferring maintenance and building projects since 2008. It will be of particular help to Western Carolina University, along with UNCA and A-B Tech. There will be some investment in Gorges State Park, as well as Chimney Rock Park in my neighborhood. There will be money spent for National Guard buildings and for important agricultural research facilities. Treasurer Janet Cowell has approved the bond, and North Carolina remains at the highest AAA bond rating.
“Because of the tax cuts that benefit corporations and upper-income individuals,” continues Ager, “the state does not have the revenue for a pay-as-you-go approach … and the price tag on these projects will only increase.”
Norman Bossert, a Democratic candidate in the 48th Senate District, says the bond money would help address “some capital issues that have gone on too long and not been taken care of. There’s some 74 institutions in 76 counties that are going to benefit from this. From the coast to the mountains, everybody’s going to get something.” The Senate district includes south Buncombe, Henderson and Transylvania counties.
Improving state park facilities, adds Bossert, also makes economic sense for WNC. “The theory is, when they make improvements to the sewage systems and water systems, they’ll be even more attractive as tourist stops. That can benefit the economy here quite a bit.”
Not every candidate concurs, however. “Any referendum on a primary ballot I oppose, period,” declares Dennis Justice, a Republican candidate for the 48th Senate District. But he goes even further, proposing a constitutional amendment that would limit bond terms to four years, with no refinancing allowed. “This will force us to stop wasting money on palaces,” he asserts, adding, “Teachers and curriculum are far more important than fancy buildings.”
Meanwhile, fellow Republican Lisa Baldwin, who’s running in the same Senate district, has spoken out against the way the bond issue has been presented to voters. “Originally,” she says, “it contained funding for roads, but it was removed by the Legislature. The bond’s still called Connect NC, which misleads citizens into thinking it’s for transportation needs.”
Baldwin also questions how some of the money would be used — particularly by the colleges and state parks — and whether lawmakers have properly reviewed a measure that she says would saddle the next generation of Tar Heel residents with substantial debt.
“Voters are being asked to approve a bond package without knowing what’s in it,” she contends. “While some projects are worthy, have they been properly vetted? I urge citizens to vote against it and legislators to prioritize projects, appropriating funds only for those that are truly necessary.”
Bossert, though, says that while he wishes voters had had more time to study the proposal, he believes its aim and structure have been adequately reviewed. “What I like best about this bill is that it’s strongly supported in a bipartisan fashion,” he notes. “The person I’m trying to replace — [retiring longtime Republican legislator] Tom Apodaca — supports the bond. All the Democrats support it, and most of the Republicans do, too. This tells me that everyone is pretty content that the way it’s being presented is honest and upfront.”
According to connect.nc.gov, the campaign’s official website, the bond issue will “allow us to pay for 50-year assets with 20-year financing. No tax increases are necessary to finance the bond, given our strong revenue growth and ample debt service capacity.”
Bossert also cites North Carolina’s track record, noting that “The state is paying off a previous 20-year bond in 2017 — three years early.” That, he says, enables it to take on additional bond debt without “visible increases in taxes to anyone.”
And with interest rates so low, “There’s probably never been a better time for the state to borrow money,” he believes.
For more information on the Connect NC bond referendum, how the General Assembly plans to pay for the bonds and an itemized list of projects to be funded, visit connect.nc.gov.