A Senate committee on Tuesday moved up a proposed $2 billion bond referendum from November 2016 to March, allowing the state to take advantage of lower interest rates.
The Senate Finance Committee approved an updated bond proposal one day after its first version of the bill was released. Senate leaders had scaled back the package from the House’s $3 billion bond plan, and they cut projects at three historically black UNC system schools.
The proposal that left out Elizabeth City State, Fayetteville State and N.C. Central universities drew criticism from Senate Minority Leader Dan Blue of Raleigh. He called on Republicans to “fill in those gaps that seem to be obvious in this bill.”
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Sen. Kathy Harrington, a Gastonia Republican who presented the bond bill, said it was revised, “taking into account comments and concerns that we heard from this committee.” The changes also address House priorities, restoring several projects that chamber had included in its bond.
“It also reflects an agreement with the House this morning,” she said. Several House Republican leaders stopped by the Senate committee room to see the final bill after a series of delays.
The new version, which could be on the Senate floor as early as Wednesday, increases university bond spending from $921 million to $980 million. It restores funding for a new business school at N.C. Central, a science building renovation at Fayetteville State and a new business school at UNC Pembroke.
Only three UNC schools – UNC Asheville, Elizabeth City State and the UNC School of the Arts – don’t have projects in the new bond package. They’d be eligible for $45 million in repair and renovation money available to campuses statewide.
The change in university projects represents a rare victory for Blue, who doesn’t have enough Democratic votes in the Senate to stop legislation.
“It realizes that some of these institutions have greater challenges, and all of them are state responsibilities,” Blue said after the unanimous committee vote Tuesday. “All of them ought to be participating in this bond. I think that’s going to make for much more energy in people going out to convince the voters that this bond is really needed.”
The new bond package includes $75 million for dozens of state parks, recreation and natural areas, while reducing the N.C. Zoo’s allotment from $45 million to $25 million. Other House bond priorities were restored as well: $85 million for a plant sciences building at N.C. State; $3 million to help local governments build parks for disabled children and veterans; and $8.5 million for a public safety training academy in Moore County.
The Senate’s Monday proposal called for a November 2016 referendum, which would have a large turnout with the presidential elections. The new March date likely puts the bond alongside primaries for president, governor and other statewide races. But Gov. Pat McCrory, who’s lobbied for the bond for months, worried that a later vote would mean higher interest rates.
Sen. Bill Rabon, a Southport Republican, praised the compromise proposal. “It’s the best bond that 170 people can pass and millions of people can benefit from,” he said.