Gov. Pat McCrory has presented the General Assembly with an opportunity to fund $2.8 billion worth of needed investments in public education, parks, public health, roads, ports and the military through his Connect NC program.
Issuing bonds, which would require a vote of the people, can help us catch up on many projects that have been delayed due to the economic downturn we have experienced in recent years.
Passage of the bond issue would have a huge impact on the economy in North Carolina by creating 27,000 short-term jobs, a boost the construction industry needs. In addition, more than 4,300 long-term jobs would be created.
We are falling behind with our transportation needs due to a lack of funding. Few people realize that we are now the ninth-largest state and will move to number seven in the near future. While this is great news, it does result in the need to constantly improve our infrastructure.
The governor’s $1.37 billion bond package for roads would fund 27 highway projects and 176 paving projects in 57 counties. The projects were not chosen by the old-fashioned political process, but by the new mobility formula that puts the money where it is needed most.
Included in the Connect NC transportation plan is $300 million of nonhighway investments, including $50 million for rail projects and $200 million to improve the ports at Wilmington and Morehead City. This would aid economic development throughout the state through improved intermodal facilities that wouldl move freight more efficiently. Our current deficiencies in this area are a negative in recruiting jobs. In addition, the balanced transportation bonds would allocate investments in ferry, aviation, public transportation, bike and pedestrian projects.
The Connect NC through higher education investment would send $534 million to the UNC system to build new STEM facilities, as well as to renovate current buildings as we work to make sure we provide the needed workforce – another key factor in attracting jobs. All 58 community colleges would share in $200 million for needed repairs and renovations. Community colleges are key to reducing the skills gap.
Because of our rapid growth, we must maintain the high quality of life that attracts people. We have a magnificent but underfunded state parks system, and $67 million would be provided to update facilities at 28 state parks. We have one of the top zoos in the world. However, growth and repairs have been stagnant because of other needs. The zoo would get $20 million. Historic sites, including the USS NC battleship, would also receive funding.
Severe deficiencies in our medical examiner’s system have been identified, as well as our aging National Guard facilities across the state: $56 million would be directed to these two areas.
These needed investments would not require a tax increase and would not strain the state budget. Interest rates are low now but are expected rise. Operational costs, especially in older buildings, would actually be reduced by increased efficiency.
Local officials from throughout the state support this bond issue because of the dramatic need for these improvements but also because their budgets are stretched to the point they cannot afford to make these investments locally.
Thankfully, legislators are hearing from their constituents and are being urged to support letting the people vote on the Connect NC program. While the McCrory administration is open to changing some of the priorities, the process must not become a pork barrel charade where politics, rather than actual need, determines priorities. Careful consideration was given in developing the list of projects, but that is not to say it is perfect.
To those who think Connect NC is too large, I would point out that the last two bond issues for the UNC system, community colleges, K-12 schools, highways and UNC TV totaled $6 billion. I had the opportunity to chair the campaigns in 1996 and 2000 and am pleased that voters overwhelmingly supported these investments. In fact, the higher education bonds passed in all 100 counties with 74 percent support. Often we don’t give voters credit for knowing a good deal when they see it.
Now is the time to make the investments needed to continue to move North Carolina forward and to enhance the quality of life we all enjoy. The quicker we are allowed to vote to support these bonds, the stronger our economy will become with more people going to work and paying taxes. Interest rates and construction costs will go up, not down.
The legislature and the governor must move ahead in a bipartisan manner because I am convinced voters will overwhelmingly say “yes” to this forward-thinking good deal.
Phil Kirk is president/CEO emeritus of the NC Chamber and chairman emeritus of the State Board of Education.