The N.C. Senate wants to put a $2 billion infrastructure bond package before voters in November 2016 – cutting transportation projects and delaying the referendum date from Gov. Pat McCrory’s original proposal.
The referendum would be the biggest borrowing question put to voters in more than a decade. The bond is a major policy goal for McCrory, who has been lobbying for his “Connect N.C.” plan for months.
The Senate Finance Committee debated the updated bond proposal Monday and plans to take a vote Tuesday. The new version is a scaled-back version of the $3 billion in borrowing sought by McCrory and House leaders earlier this year.
“Two billion dollars is a lot of money to ask our taxpayers to borrow, and I hope they will weigh the proposal carefully when deciding how to cast their ballots,” Senate leader Phil Berger said in a statement. “But once they consider the long-term value to our state, I’m sure they will agree this bond is a good investment in North Carolina’s future.”
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The Senate bill cuts a $500 million fund for public school construction and funding for state park projects, with the exception of the N.C. Zoo. The zoo would get $45 million to replace its Africa Pavilion.
Instead, the bond package now places a heavy focus on UNC system and community college construction needs. Eleven UNC campuses would split $921.7 million, and each community college would get a share of $400 million.
Senate Minority Leader Dan Blue of Raleigh praised the higher education allocation as a “gigantic infusion for them and a shot in the arm,” but he questioned why three historically black UNC system schools were left out. Several of them had construction projects in earlier versions of the bond package.
“We need unanimity, and I think you can have it if you can fill in those gaps that seem to be obvious in this bill,” Blue said.
Asked after the meeting about why certain universities were left out, Sen. Kathy Harrington, a Gastonia Republican who presented the Senate bond, would only say that “this is our proposal today.”
About $450 million of the bond money would fund a water and sewer loan and grant program, which would be overseen by the Department of Environmental Quality – the agency formerly known as the Department of Environment and Natural Resources.
Part of the water and sewer money would be directed toward the state’s poorest counties, but all local governments would be eligible to apply.
The Senate bond package includes $82.7 million to upgrade National Guard facilities, but McCrory’s military adviser, Maj. Gen. Cornell Wilson, told senators they should help other military installations as well.
“There’s no money in the bond issue for the military at all,” Wilson said, pointing out that the federal government could be looking to close bases and installations in the coming years. “We can have an opportunity to help preserve our bases and installations.”
McCrory’s bond proposal would have split about $3 billion evenly between infrastructure and transportation projects. The House bond plan would have directed $400 million toward transportation, and McCrory said last week he still hoped that some transportation projects would make the cut.
But Harrington said transportation needs have already been addressed in the new budget approved last week. The budget eliminates the annual transfer of $216 million from the Highway Fund to the General Fund, freeing up more funding for road projects.
Harrington said the bond package released Monday represents only the Senate’s proposal. Senate and House leaders have discussed the bond in private meetings recently, and House Speaker Tim Moore has said his chamber supports dropping the bond amount to $2 billion. But he suggested that the House prefers holding the bond vote at the time of the presidential primary, which will likely take place in March.
A former House member, Lane Brown, told the Senate committee that delaying the vote to November could cost the state more. “If the Federal Reserve raises interest rates, is that going to increase the cost of the bonds?” he said. “I think that is an issue that does need to be addressed.”
Projects in latest $2 billion bond package
UNC-Chapel Hill: Replacement for medical education building ($68.8 million)
N.C. State: New engineering building ($75 million)
N.C. School of Science and Math: New campus in Morganton ($58.8 million)
Community colleges: $400 million for renovations and construction, split among all colleges
N.C. Zoo: New Africa Pavilion and upgrades to Australasia exhibit complex ($45 million)
Water and sewer projects: New loan and grant fund administered by the Department of Environmental Quality ($450.6 million)
Projects cut from bond package
UNC system: Construction projects at N.C. Central, UNC Asheville, UNC Pembroke, Elizabeth City State, Fayetteville State and UNC School of the Arts
N.C. State: Plant sciences building, a partnership with the Department of Agriculture
Local schools: $500 million grant fund for school construction and renovations
State parks: Construction funding for dozens of state parks and a new visitor’s center at the USS North Carolina battleship in Wilmington
Highway Patrol: $38.2 million for a new training academy in Wake County