Gov. Pat McCrory's proposal to borrow $1 billion to "kick-start" state transportation projects is notable for its potential to "kick-start" his administration.
After a year and a half of being mired in divisive debates about tax cuts, low education funding, voting rights restrictions and blocked Medicaid expansion, the governor has proposed something that is truly constructive: a 25-year plan for rail, port, transit and highway investments across the state.
What's most notable about the plan aren't the projects mentioned, but McCrory's seeming conversion from spinner to realist.
Here for once he's not talking about the "Carolina comeback" and an economy unleashed from burdensome regulations and taxes thanks to him and his fellow Republicans in the General Assembly. Instead, he announced the plan by addressing hard truths about the state's rural economy and the need for state government to invest in the needs of a growing state.
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"Our small towns are still struggling," McCrory told an audience in Greenville. "And our major emphasis in economic development is going to be put toward our towns, you know, from 10 to 50 thousand people."
Seeing the need
People in rural North Carolina - a population all but invisible as Republicans have catered to big businesses and the wealthy - finally have received a nod of recognition from the governor. Leaders in the General Assembly may still be blind to rural needs, but McCrory's words are a start.
A governor should propose bold and ambitious plans, but McCrory previously has offered only small bore notions about better "customer service" and finding efficiencies in state government. Now he has a plan worthy of his office. Now to see whether he can keep it - and his stature - from being shrunk or even dismissed by the GOP's legislative leaders, especially state Senate leader Phil Berger.
The legislature - with McCrory's approval - has set about starving state government with excessive tax cuts that have created a hole in the state budget. It seems an unlikely group to launch a massive infrastructure undertaking that would address transportation needs that are expected to cost between $94 billion and $123 billion by 2040. But the governor's proposal is an encouraging first step.
Access to prosperity
The governor's proposal is admirable for its recognition of how much rural areas are falling behind as the state's metro regions grow. Building better roads to link rural areas to the metro regions of North Carolina and Virginia's Hampton Roads area may not be enough to bring the lagging towns back, but better roads will raise the odds that prosperity can reach them.
The plan has two points of concern regarding projects. First, it emphasizes highways at the expense of mass transit, a balance that makes it look like a 20th century plan for the 21st century. Second, it does nothing to improve the state's sagging and dangerous portion of I-95. A serious plan about the future of transportation in North Carolina has to address that vital artery.
Of course, the biggest issue isn't what's proposed, but how to pay for it. Gas tax revenues are not enough in a time when cars burn less gas and electric cars are on the cusp of becoming practical and affordable. The legislature is going to have to do what its leadership is averse to doing - find more revenue to support real needs.
With this plan, the governor shows signs of tackling those needs. Now let's see if he can get the legislature to go along.