Voters going to the polls March 15 will see something rare on the ballot: a Republican-backed proposal to invest in North Carolina.
The proposal is a $2 billion bond issue called Connect NC. North Carolinians should vote for it. Anytime there’s a chance to get this tightfisted legislature to spend money on something other than tax cuts, take it.
About half of the borrowing will provide $980 million for campus upgrades for the University of North Carolina system and another $350 million will go to the community college system. The remaining third will provide $100 million for improvements to state parks and zoos, $309 million for local water and sewer projects, $179 million for agriculture research projects and $70 million for N.C. National Guard buildings. The borrowing will not require a tax increase and won’t hurt North Carolina’s excellent AAA bond rating. General fund tax revenue will be used to pay off the bonds.
An important spinoff of investing in public projects will be job creation. The Budget and Tax Center of the N.C. Justice Center estimates that the bond issue could generate 5,000 jobs per yer for five years.
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North Carolinians traditionally have supported bond issues, and polls indicate that is the case with Connect NC. A new High Point University poll found that more than two-thirds of those surveyed would vote in favor of Connect NC.
However, this bond issue has drawn an unusual mix of opposition from both conservatives and liberals. Conservatives have formed a group called “NC Against The Bond.” The group opposes the borrowing as irresponsible spending on projects that should be considered individually and funded through the regular state budget process without interest costs.
Others, conservatives and liberals alike, object that Connect NC was originally proposed as borrowing for transportation projects – thus the Connect NC name – but those projects have been removed. Finally, some liberals object to the bond issue being sold as painless borrowing without a tax increase. While taxes won’t go up, they say, dollars will have to be taken from elsewhere in the budget to pay the debt, a shift that could reduce education operating budgets even as the bond puts money into higher education capital projects.
These concerns are valid, but they must be weighed in the context of the current political climate. The Republican-controlled legislature is committed to holding down state spending and further cutting income taxes. If it’s offering the chance for a surge in state investment, voters can’t afford the luxury of waiting for a bigger, better-focused, tax-supported bond issue. Unless the makeup of the General Assembly is radically changed in the next few elections, that kind of investment will not gain legislative approval.
UNC-CH Chancellor Carol Folt put the situation succinctly. “This isn’t a question of, ‘Let’s wait,’ ” she said last week. “It’s a question of, ‘Let’s get going.’ ”
Connect NC is not a perfect bond issue. Its focus is scattered, and its repayment could cut budgets that are already tight. But this proposal for $2 billion in spending on projects that will provide lasting benefits is the best that can be expected from this legislature. Say yes to Connect NC.