Gov. Pat McCrory on Wednesday set into motion a major bond campaign that will ask voters to approve borrowing of about $2 billion for repairs and expansions across the state. The governor formally signed the legislation that will put a referendum on the March 15 ballot in a ceremony that underlined a base of support for the plan and was seen as an effort to burnish his image.
The governor has frequently portrayed himself as a Republican in the mold of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, whose ambitions to connect the country through a modern highway system foreshadowed today’s challenge of connecting cities and rural areas through good roads, efficient buildings and the latest technology and science.
McCrory has pushed hard all year to move his “Connect N.C.” bonds proposal through the legislature. Along the way, he lost about one-third of what he had initially sought, including plans to finance with bonds major transportation projects.
Between now and the election, which will include presidential and statewide primary contests, the bonds will be part of a statewide effort to gather support for the borrowed funds, which would largely go toward educational facilities in addition to agricultural research, parks, and water and sewer improvements.
McCrory, speaking at the Golden LEAF Biomanufacturing Training and Education Center at N.C. State University, noted North Carolina is now the ninth most-populated state and growing.
This is not a state that stagnates.
Gov. Pat McCrory
“So we have a choice in North Carolina: Do we continue to prepare for growth or do we react to growth?” the governor said. “I’m convinced that those who prepare win the competition for quality of life and economic development in the future. Those who stagnate and don’t continue to invest and prepare for that growth will suffer in quality of life, and economic development and jobs. This is not a state that stagnates.”
McCrory said a bond campaign team is forming and will spend the months between now and the election promoting the bonds across the state. He traveled to Kinston later Wednesday to have a commemorative bill-signing, and said he would visit Stone Mountain State Park and UNC Charlotte on Thursday for additional bond events.
“We’re going to be traveling throughout the state to educate people on the investment in the future of North Carolina,” he said.
It is unclear whether the bond campaign will face organized opposition.
Boosters don’t have time to waste, said George Little, who first served as finance chairman in the successful $3.1 billion higher-education bond campaign in 2000, the last time a bond issue was put to the voters statewide.
“You’re going to have to raise a substantial budget to pay for the advertising for the bonds – a statewide advertising program, which is going to be very competitive because of the primary,” said Little, who lives in Pinehurst and is a trustee at Sandhills Community College.
For full-press advertising, Little anticipates needing a budget of $6 million to $8 million, and that a committee will need to quickly discuss fundraising, messaging and other strategy. He added that he’s been in communication with McCrory, who he said understands the urgency.
State Budget Director Lee Roberts echoed that concern in an interview after the bill-signing ceremony, saying supporters representing a bipartisan cross-section of the state are ready to launch the campaign.
There’s enough time, but there’s not a ton of time; people need to get moving.
Budget Director Lee Roberts
“There’s enough time, but there’s not a ton of time; people need to get moving,” Roberts said. “We’ve been pleased at how it’s come together so far.”
McCrory announced the honorary and active leaders of a campaign, which Roberts said would be separate from the administration. Roberts said there had not been any discussions about whether McCrory would appear in TV ads promoting the bonds.
The state Democratic Party cautioned that it would be inappropriate for the governor to be the face of a campaign that he launched, since that would also benefit his re-election efforts.
“Gov. McCrory should publicly pledge not to appear in any advertisements paid for with contributions legally intended to support the referendum,” Democratic Party spokesman Ford Porter said. “The debate on this important issue for our state should not be tainted by partisan politics.”
A spokesman for Attorney General Roy Cooper, who is running against McCrory for governor, said Cooper supports the bond package.
McCrory said that early this year he discussed with Roberts and his chief of staff, Thomas Stith, his aspirations for infrastructure and road improvements. They came up with an extensive list, and then he invited the General Assembly to weigh in. Lawmakers mostly pared the list. McCrory said the result was “this package of opportunity.”
The debate on this important issue for our state should not be tainted by partisan politics.
N.C. Democratic Party spokesman Ford Porter
The higher-education chunk of the bonds plan draws on the political muscle of the university system. That was evident at Wednesday’s bill-signing ceremony, with a number of chancellors, Board of Governors members and outgoing UNC President Tom Ross on hand.
McCrory also appointed key education supporters to the bond issue campaign committee as co-chairs and as honorary co-chairs. There have been tensions in recent years between university educators and the state legislature over funding and other issues, culminating in Ross being pushed out by a GOP-dominated Board of Governors earlier this year.
Ross and three chancellors attended the ceremony, and Ross later released a statement in support of the bond package: “The passage of legislation authorizing a statewide referendum on a $2 billion bond package of capital projects offers clear evidence that state leaders understand the critical role our public universities and community colleges play in North Carolina,” Ross said.
About 150 people attended the signing, including dozens of officials in politics and business as well as education and a handful of Republican and Democratic state legislators. On stage, McCrory was flanked by Senate leader Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore, with Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler and Sen. Dan Blue, a Raleigh Democrat, nearby.
“It’s time to invest again,” NCSU Chancellor Randy Woodson told the audience.
What the bonds would do
Gov. Pat McCrory touched on some of bond issue’s main selling points on Wednesday:
▪ Due to expected strong revenue growth and retiring of previous debt, officials say no new taxes will be needed to complete the projects on the list.
▪ Interest rates are lower now than they are expected to be.
▪ The service life of the bonds amounts to 50 years, with 20-year financing.
▪ Seventy-six counties, small towns and cities would benefit.
▪ Within five years, the state’s debt will be less than it is today if the bond issue is approved, based on state budget office estimates.
▪ It has been 15 years since the last bond issue approval, and the state has grown by 2 million people since then.
About half of the proceeds of the bond issue would go to higher education: $980 million for building and repairs in the UNC system. An additional $350 million would go to the state’s community college system for renovations.
Agricultural research would be a big focus, too, with $85 million aimed at a Plant Sciences Research Complex at N.C. State University in Raleigh, and $94 million for a lab at the Agricultural and Consumer Sciences Building for veterinary, food, drug and motor fuel testing.
Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler said the state’s agricultural interests, including the N.C. Farm Bureau, have committed to support the bond issue.
The National Guard would receive $70 million to build regional centers in Burke, Guilford and Wilkes counties. The N.C. Zoo would receive $25 million for upgrades, which was less than originally targeted, and 45 state parks would get $75 million.
Water and sewer improvements in small towns and urban centers would amount to about $310 million.
Who will promote the bond referendum?
▪ Gov. Pat McCrory will be the honorary co-chairman, a role Gov. Jim Hunt had during the 2000 referendum.
▪ Honorary co-chairs: Lt. Gov. Dan Forest; Senate leader Phil Berger; House Speaker Tim Moore; Senate Minority Leader Dan Blue; state Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson; Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler; Bob Brown of High Point, CEO of B&C International; Jack Cecil of Asheville, president of Biltmore Farms; Fred Eschelman of Wilmington, founder of PPD; Ann Goodnight, SAS director of outreach; Stick Williams of Charlotte, Duke Energy Foundation president; and Jim Melvin of Greensboro, president of the Joseph Bryan Foundation.
▪ Co-chairs: Vanessa Harrison, president of AT&T North Carolina in Raleigh; retired Brig. Gen. David Janette with Timberlands Unlimited in Windsor; former N.C. Supreme Court Justice Robert Orr; Jim Rose with Yadkin Bank in Raleigh; and Dr. Joan Perry with Kinston Pediatrics in Kinston.
Additional members will be announced later.