North Carolina voters heavily favored the Connect NC bond referendum Tuesday, allowing the state to borrow $2 billion for campus construction and infrastructure.
With 100 percent of precincts reporting, the bond sailed toward passage, with about two-thirds of voters saying yes.
The referendum, at the bottom of a loaded primary ballot, asked voters to back state borrowing that supporters vowed would require no tax increase. Two-thirds of the money would go to the state’s public universities and community colleges. The rest would be spent on water and sewer projects, state parks and facilities for agriculture, public safety and the National Guard.
“This is the best of North Carolina,” Republican Gov. Pat McCrory said at a victory party at a downtown Raleigh hotel.
He referenced the divisive presidential campaign in his remarks, while praising bipartisan bond supporters.
“While the rest of the nation is going through a lot of political divide, as we see tonight, I want to just let you know that maybe North Carolina can be a role model for the rest of the nation in how we ran this bond campaign and how we developed this bond campaign,” he said. “We did it together as a team.”
The new UNC system president, Margaret Spellings, only two weeks into the job, said, “It is a great day for education in North Carolina. It is a thrill to experience firsthand the citizens of this state uniting around this mighty engine that is the University of North Carolina.”
It’s the first statewide bond since 2000, when nearly three-quarters of voters approved $3.1 billion in construction spending for the UNC system and the community colleges.
A group of business and community leaders worked to raise $2 million for a campaign to sell the referendum. McCrory and the state’s higher education leaders pushed hard in recent weeks, crossing the state making public appearances, where they described outdated buildings and a statewide population that had grown by 2 million since the last referendum. Supporters also touted the regional improvements to water and sewer systems and state parks. Referendum signs featured images of wild animals – tapping into public support for the North Carolina Zoo, which would receive $25 million.
Meanwhile, a few signs popped up telling voters to say no to borrowing. Opponents created a petition and a website called “NC Against the Bond” that said, “Out of control government spending is robbing from our children’s future.”
The higher education portion of Connect NC – $1 billion for the UNC campuses and $350 million for community colleges – is largely focused on buildings for science, technology, engineering and mathematics, as well as facilities to train nurses and other health-care professionals.
In the Triangle, N.C. Central would get $30 million for a business school building. N.C. State would get $75 million for an engineering building and $85 million for a plant sciences facility. UNC-Chapel Hill would receive $68 million toward the replacement of its medical school building. The universities will have to raise private money to add to the public investment for the buildings.
UNC-CH Chancellor Carol Folt issued a statement thanking voters. “It is a strong endorsement for the importance of having the very best facilities at Carolina to train more North Carolina doctors for our state,” the statement said.
The N.C. School of Science and Mathematics would receive $58 million, but that money would leave the Durham-based campus and instead go to a satellite school to be built in Burke County.
Money for the community colleges – $350 million – would be divided based on a formula, with amounts ranging from $2.7 million at Carteret to $12.6 million at Wake Tech.
Speaking on behalf of the community colleges, former Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton, a Democrat who ran against McCrory four years ago, said the bond campaign resonated with people. “It was a message that says, in North Carolina, beauty matters. In North Carolina, safety matters. In North Carolina, economic development matters. And in North Carolina, educational opportunity and workforce training is important, and it matters,” said Dalton, who is now president of Isothermal Community College in Rutherford County.
McCrory and other supporters tried to assure voters that the increased borrowing wouldn’t require a tax increase. A recent debt affordability study showed the state had ample capacity to handle the $2 billion in new borrowing because North Carolina is rapidly retiring old debt.
Political consultants for the bond recently expressed concern that a large turnout of Republicans and Donald Trump supporters could threaten the bond’s passage. But Bob Orr, former state Supreme Court justice who led the campaign, said voters understood what was at stake. “They understand the needs that universities have, that community colleges have,” Orr said. “So it wasn’t abstract. It became real to them.”
Jane Stancill: 919-829-4559, @janestancill
Connect NC bond
2,709 of 2,709 precincts reporting