The state Senate voted 46-2 Wednesday to schedule a $2 billion bond referendum for higher education, parks and other infrastructure next March.
The bond is a major priority for Gov. Pat McCrory, who’s been lobbying for the “Connect NC” proposal for months. He had originally sought $3 billion in borrowing for a mix of transportation and infrastructure projects, but legislators decided to lower the total and remove transportation.
A final Senate vote is scheduled for Thursday. The House plans to vote on the proposal – which its leaders support – next week.
“North Carolina has long faced challenges with aging infrastructure, and with a rapidly growing population, our state’s needs are also rapidly growing,” Senate leader Phil Berger said in a news release following the vote.
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Sen. Rick Gunn, a Burlington Republican, said the bond will jump-start numerous construction projects and create jobs.
“It’s going to aid our state, and it’s going to make this a great place to live and work,” Gunn said. “I do think this bond was needed, and I think $2 billion was a good, healthy number.”
Supporters stressed that the state can afford to borrow the money without raising taxes or approaching its debt capacity. But some senators worried the bond package focuses too much on new construction and doesn’t leave enough money for repair and renovation.
“It’s nice to build new buildings, but we have a lot of needs out there,” said Sen. Andrew Brock, a Mocksville Republican who voted against the referendum. “We have a lot of existing buildings right now that need a lot of work.”
Brock pointed to the N.C. Zoo’s Africa Pavilion, which would be replaced with $25 million in bond money. He said the facility wouldn’t need to be torn down if the state had funded proper maintenance.
Sen. Bob Rucho, a Mecklenburg County Republican, voted for the bill but said he’s worried about the cost of the new buildings that would be funded by the bonds. “There is no plan to know exactly what the cost is three to five years out after that building is finished,” he said. “It puts a strain on the budget.”
Nearly half of the bond money would go to state universities, mostly new construction at 14 campuses. N.C. State would get a new engineering building, UNC-Chapel Hill would replace its medical education building, and N.C. Central would get a new business school building.
The state’s community colleges would split $350 million, but they’d have to provide matching funds. The required match would be larger in wealthier, urban counties.
Senate Minority Leader Dan Blue of Raleigh said he’s comfortable with rural community colleges getting a larger share. “None of us resisted the effort to make a special push toward helping the poor and rural counties,” he said. “These workers will end up all over North Carolina, and it’s important they get trained in the educational system where they are.”
Sen. Tom McInnis, a Richmond County Republican, said the bond’s $309.5 million fund for water and sewer grants and loans will also help rural areas. Many towns have failing infrastructure, he said, and “this will be the shot in the arm that will bring them out of the Great Recession.”
Where the $2 billion would go
▪ $980 million, or 49 percent, would go to state universities
▪ $350 million, or 17.5 percent, would be divided among community colleges
▪ $100 million, or 5 percent, would go to state parks and the N.C. Zoo
▪ $187.5 million, or 9.4 percent, would build new agriculture and public safety facilities