All hands were on deck earlier this week for the official launch of the campaign to pass the $2 billion bond package for higher education and state parks that will go before voters March 15.
Leaders of both political parties spoke at a packed rally at N.C. State University’s Centennial Campus in Raleigh and, given the current political climate in the state, it’s encouraging to hear bipartisan support for important public investments in university and community college buildings, expansion and renovation of state parks, and the modernization of outdated water and sewer systems across the state.
There’s even a bipartisan spirit in who is running the campaign with a Republican consulting firm sharing the business with a leading Democratic firm.
In fact, it’s hard to find folks opposed to the bond issue with the exception of some tea party groups and a few far-right bloggers, though you don’t have to be very cynical to wonder whether some of the support from conservative groups would be as likely if the bonds were proposed by a progressive Democratic governor instead of Republican Pat McCrory, who is seeking re-election in what is expected to be a close race in November.
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Still, the overwhelming and broad support from state political leaders for the bond issue is heartening, and it’s hard to imagine it failing in March unless an organized opposition materializes quickly and the Republican presidential primary brings out an even larger anti-government turnout than expected as Sen. Ted Cruz and Donald Trump battle it out.
So good for McCrory for proposing the bond issue and good for the General Assembly for a strong bipartisan vote to put it on the ballot. Let’s hope the voters respond and approve long overdue public investments across the state.
And the people in them
But there’s a nagging question amid all the hoopla and goodwill of the bond launch. Will the folks in charge in Raleigh support only the buildings on university campuses or will they change their priorities this year and also support the people who work in them?
Since 2010 the UNC system has suffered more than $500 million in budget cuts, and most faculty and staff members have received only one raise, and it was just 1.2 percent.
The budget passed last fall and signed by McCrory denied them a raise again, instead providing a one-time $750 bonus that won’t do much to stop universities in other states from recruiting top faculty members away.
Overall state funding per student at UNC has dropped by 15.7 percent since 2008 while tuition has increased by 42 percent.
And to make things worse, the UNC Board of Governors recently voted to cap need-based financial aid.
It’s not like lawmakers didn’t have the money to invest. They chose to cut taxes again instead, reducing state revenues almost $600 million in the next two years.
That comes on top of an even larger tax cut for corporations and the wealthy in 2013 that swallowed much of the revenue raised by the state’s recovering economy.
And it’s not just the universities that have been hammered. Community college faculty members remain among the lowest paid in the country, and community college tuition has risen 81 percent since 2009.
These are the folks who will be teaching and learning in the much-needed buildings that the bond issues will pay for.
Public money to prosper
The slogan of the bond campaign is “vote yes to invest,” and McCrory said at the rally that, “North Carolina is in the big time now, and we need to prepare for the future.”
He’s right. North Carolina needs public investments to prosper, and it needs to make them in both the buildings the bonds will pay for and in the staff and students in the state budget McCrory and legislative leaders will put together this year.
Let’s hope the bipartisan consensus on the need for increased public investments continues past March, all the way to the short session of the General Assembly and beyond.
Vote yes to invest is good advice not just for voters, but for McCrory and state lawmakers, too.
Chris Fitzsimon is executive director of N.C. Policy Watch, on whose blog this was originally published.