The campaign to persuade North Carolina voters to borrow $2 billion is driven by a large, well-funded organization with support from politicians, educators, agriculture and development associations, and business interests statewide.
But whether supporters can reach down to the grass roots before the voters decide March 15 is the big question.
There is little organized opposition to the bipartisan campaign. But there are opponents who, as outgunned as they are, have tapped into a vocal branch of conservatism that distrusts the Republican mainstream.
Winning over the opponents and the undecided is the job of a hired trio of field directors. One of them, Jessica Proctor of Raleigh, figures she has put 4,300 miles on her Volvo station wagon hitting the Rotary Club circuit and practically every event she can find in the eastern part of the state.
Our investment in getting this bond through is about providing opportunities for our children, that they’ll be educated, live in a world that’s safe and clean and has opportunities.
Jessica Proctor, field director
Proctor has a background in state government and sales. And with strong family ties in the East, she makes the pitch that the bonds will make North Carolina a better place to live by improving universities, community colleges, agriculture, parks, the National Guard and sewer and water infrastructure.
“Our investment in getting this bond through is about providing opportunities for our children, that they’ll be educated, live in a world that’s safe and clean and has opportunities,” Proctor said in an interview this week.
The bond campaign sprung from Gov. Pat McCrory, who has put so much effort into it that its fate will reflect on his legacy. He has been stumping for the proposal across the state, in universities and other places that he says would benefit from its passage.
Bond supporters behind the Connect NC Committee, which is registered with the state to promote the bond issue, say they have raised almost half of their $3.3 million goal, enough to launch a first round of TV ads around the state.
Contrast that with NC Against the Bond, whose organizers acknowledge they can’t compete with that kind of money. Financial disclosure reports are not due until March 1.
“We’re not very organized,” said Nicole Revels, the opposition group’s founder. “It’s just anybody who wants to take up the cause.”
We’re talking about adopting a line of credit and leaving that to future generations to have to pay off, plus substantial interest.
Nicole Revels, bond opponent
Revels, who lives in Lenoir, says she had questions about the bond issue when she first heard about it and began to do research, buying a website and posting her concerns there. Now she might be its most avid opponent.
“A bond amounts to deferred taxation,” Revels said. “We’re talking about adopting a line of credit and leaving that to future generations to have to pay off, plus substantial interest. So I don’t think it’s a fiscally responsible policy for us to leave that for our children.”
The governor’s former budget director, Lee Roberts, has said that repaying the bonds will not require a tax increase, because the state is paying down its debt so rapidly. The state treasurer, Janet Cowell, recently reported there was adequate capacity to take on new debt. Interest rates are at historic lows.
Yet Revels says a better option would be to prioritize the projects and fund them on their own merits, rather than through what amounts to an omnibus bill. Even though proponents have been promoting their message full time and a list of how the money would be spent is online, Revels contends that taxpayers don’t know enough about the plan. The $350 million proposal for community colleges, for instance, doesn’t disclose details of any of those projects.
“Are they for tennis courts and swimming pools, or are they going to be remodeling some of their buildings?” Revels said. “We don’t know.”
The community college system has identified $1.7 billion worth of capital improvements that are needed, according to Linda Weiner, a vice president with the system – far exceeding the amount that would be available from bonds.
Funding for each college was determined by the state Office of Budget and Management using a formula based on individual factors. Community college projects had not been identified when legislators passed the bill setting the bond referendum.
New construction projects will require local matching funds, based on county economic conditions. Repair and renovation work also will be done. In most cases, local and state boards still have to approve the projects.
Another argument made by Revels and other opponents is that the name Connect NC is misleading, perhaps intentionally to win support. Transportation projects were what McCrory originally wanted to fund, but they were dropped to be dealt with later, and now two-thirds of the bond projects would be for education infrastructure.
Yet McCrory has always talked about connecting the state through more than just roads. “North Carolina really needs to be focused on Connect NC to the future,” Proctor said.
“People are so siloed-up, politically. I feel like the opposition isn’t thinking this through,” Proctor said. “They’re so busy trying to make the point that there’s some kind of inherent corruption or something going on, when it’s pretty clean, cut and dry. They’re portraying it that I’m driving around North Carolina telling people it’s a transportation bond. Well, I’ve not said one word about a road this whole journey.”
Revels also has been speaking to groups, and she says she has persuaded some local officials to oppose the bonds, specifically Republican organizations in Haywood and Iredell counties. That’s despite support for the bonds from the region’s elected legislators.
“In a way, I think that speaks to a little of the disconnect that exists right now between some of the established higher-ups of the Republican Party who are supporting, and even proposed, this bond. Working on the ground, there seems to be overwhelming opposition to the bond.”