RALEIGH – The Senate gave final approval to the $2 billion N.C. Connect bond package Thursday. The vote sends it to the House, where it is scheduled to be on the floor Monday. If signed by Gov. Pat McCrory, the bond would go before voters in March to pay for upgrades to some infrastructure, community colleges, universities, and water and sewer systems. Originally proposed by McCrory as a $2.75 billion bond, N.C. Connect remained largely intact, but lost some of the new projects in infrastructure construction as it moved through the General Assembly.
“North Carolina has long faced challenges with aging infrastructure, and with a rapidly growing population, our state’s needs are also rapidly growing,” said Senate leader Phil Berger (R-Rockingham). “We appreciate Gov. McCrory leading the effort to give voters an opportunity to invest in critical improvements, so North Carolina can continue to attract and retain jobs and maintain a high quality of life.”
Lawmakers kept the projects for higher-education facilities, military communities and water and sewer grants, but most plans in the bond for upgrades to transportation infrastructure — and other projects, such as a new visitor’s center at the U.S.S. North Carolina battleship — were scrapped. Budget writers said much of the infrastructure work could be done with the $216 million that will no longer be taken from the Highway Fund to support the General Fund every year. The budget McCrory signed earlier this week stops that annual transfer.
Commerce Secretary John Skvarla wants to keep legislators focused on bringing industry to the state, and says updating shipping and highways are critical pieces of the job growth puzzle.
“The governor’s bond initiative focused on infrastructure. I’m concerned that infrastructure isn’t as high a priority in the General Assembly as it is for the governor,” said Skvarla. “Railroads, ports, highways — all of this is critical to drawing industry. We need to get out in front of it for 30 years, not just maintain what we have. For example, we have two mediocre ports compared to South Carolina and Virginia, who have superstar ports. We need to devote some money to infrastructure to really compete with our state sisters to the north and south.”
The ultimate passage of N.C. Connect hinges on when, not just how voters cast their vote. McCrory had originally requested that the bond go on the November 2015 ballot to take advantage of historically low interest rates. With the passage of House Bill 373, a measure that moves all primaries to March, McCrory now supports putting the bond package before voters in March.
Some analysts say that the decision to combine all primaries, local and presidential, on one ballot not only saves the state money and will boost voter turnout, it also may mean good news for ultimate passage of the bond. With a wider audience turning out to vote, more moderate voters will be weighing in. According to Jones Street political strategists, moderates are more likely support the concept of incurring low-interest debt for infrastructure investments.