Gov. Pat McCrory’s administration wants the legislature to schedule a special election this November to let voters decide on a pair of proposals to borrow up to $2.8 billion to build new roads and renovate or replace state government buildings.
Transportation Secretary Tony Tata told the N.C. Chamber on Thursday that the bonds likely will be on a statewide referendum ballot Nov. 3.
If legislators agree, the proposals to borrow money for state construction needs would be decided in a low-turnout election, when the bonds would be the only item on the ballot for many voters.
Many towns and cities will have municipal elections in November, but there is no statewide vote scheduled until 2016. McCrory’s plan would require many counties to spend more to open the polls this fall.
Melanie Jennings, a spokeswoman for the state budget office, said legislation to schedule the bond referendum will likely be introduced in the House before next Thursday’s filing deadline. She declined to release further information until the bill is filed.
McCrory unveiled the two bond proposals during his State of the State address in February. He wants the state to borrow $1.2 billion to $1.4 billion for transportation projects, and an additional $1.2 billion to $1.4 billion for state government buildings.
Few bond details
In the February speech, McCrory said the transportation bond would “allow for the quicker construction of projects in the 25-year vision plan,” funding projects on that list that are ready to start construction. He said the second bond would “revitalize buildings that can be saved, tear down those that can’t, and build new, workable and efficient facilities that will be points of pride.”
While few details of the building projects have been released – the McCrory administration is still studying facility needs – the Department of Transportation released a list of 19 projects that its bond would pay for.
In the Triangle, the list includes $60 million for Wake and Franklin counties to finish the four-lane widening of U.S. 401 between Raleigh and Louisburg. The most expensive project is the Interstate 74 eastern bypass of Winston-Salem, costing $300 million.
Other major projects include $173 million to improve the interchange of interstates 40 and 77 in Statesville, $42 million to build a new U.S. 74 bypass of Shelby and $20 million to build a new Interstate 485 interchange at Weddington Road in Mecklenburg County.
Republican leaders in the House and Senate haven’t said whether they’ll support putting the bonds on this year’s ballot. A spokeswoman for Senate leader Phil Berger said Thursday she couldn’t comment until McCrory releases more details about the referendum.
After McCrory’s State of the State address, Berger said the $2.8 billion in total bonds was “more than we’ve been talking about,” and he said voters should approve any borrowing.
“There clearly are great needs in North Carolina. It’s just a question of whether or not we have the support to go forward with a particular program,” Berger told reporters after the speech.
If legislators agree to the Nov. 3 referendum date, the bonds would be the only item on the ballot for many voters. Most voters who live outside town and city limits aren’t scheduled for an election this year.
Voters in many cities and towns, including Durham, Chapel Hill and Charlotte, will elect their mayors and council members on Nov. 3. Raleigh’s mayoral and City Council elections are scheduled for Oct. 6 – the city’s polling places would only be open on Nov. 3 if a runoff is needed.
Unusual election schedule
Michael Bitzer, a politics professor at Catawba College, said bond referendums typically coincide with other statewide elections.
“It’s kind of unusual to have that big of an issue placed before the voters in a historically very low turnout year like this,” Bitzer said.
He said this year could see higher turnout among Democrats, who form a larger majority in urban populations where mayoral races draw attention. That could help the bonds’ chance of passage.
“Democrats may be more willing to support that kind of public bonds and infrastructure request,” Bitzer said. “But coming from a Republican governor who’s going to be the salesman of this, that may have some turnoffs for Democrats as well.”
The two bond proposals would be the biggest borrowing package put to North Carolina voters since 2000, when 73 percent of voters backed a $3.1 billion bond for new community college and university facilities.
That referendum occurred in a presidential election year when 59 percent of registered voters went to the polls, according to N.C. Board of Elections statistics. By contrast, just 10.5 percent of registered voters in Durham cast ballots during the municipal election there in November 2013.
Bitzer said holding the bond referendum this year – instead of in 2016 – could be a political risk for McCrory. On one hand, passing the bonds this year means he won’t have to campaign for them during his 2016 re-election bid. But if the bond issue is defeated, the governor would look weak, he said.
“You don’t want to go the year prior to your re-election bid suffering a defeat at the polls,” Bitzer said.
The transportation bonds are expected to get a big push from the N.C. Chamber, which has already been running TV commercials highlighting the dangers of crumbling bridges and infrastructure.
One jarring ad in the chamber’s campaign describes a bridge collapse “with a school bus full of children.”
“We can’t afford to wait,” the narrator in the commercial concludes.