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Connect NC Bond to build infrastructure for a stronger North Carolina 

by League Director of Public Affairs Scott Mooneyham

For the first time in 16 years, North Carolina voters will go to the polls this spring to decide a general obligation bond. The $2 billion CONNECT NC bond plan, to be decided in the March 15 primary, promises to provide a huge, needed boost to spending on infrastructure in the state, including $310 million toward water and sewer projects.

As Gov. Pat McCrory kicked off the campaign to support the bond plan, he noted the importance of the investments to the future of a state that is poised to see substantial population growth over the next two decades. "So we have a choice in North Carolina: Do we continue to prepare for growth, or do we react to growth?" the Governor said at N.C. State University during the first of several bill signing ceremonies. "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."

That campaign kick-off notably included League President Lestine Hutchens appearing with Governor McCrory at Stone Mountain State Park outside Elkin. (See Hutchens’ column on p. 4 for further thoughts on the importance of the bond plan.) Hutchens and the other members of the League’s Executive Committee later voted to endorse and support the bond campaign, with the League joining a coalition of groups actively promoting grassroots, media and social media efforts to gain support for its passage. Those efforts can be been seen in our publications, social media outreach and grassroots outreach. The Connect NC Bonds website can be found at www.VoteYestoInvest.com.

In deciding to formally back the campaign and approve a resolution of support, the League’s Executive Committee cited the critical importance of clean water to the economy. Committee members concluded that "clean water and sewer systems are essential for the 21st century to attract new and assist existing industry, business, technology, and tourism for the benefit of the State and its citizenry." Like the Governor, the Executive Committee also cited the state’s growing population, which is putting increasing demands on the infrastructure required to meet the citizenry’s needs.

Hutchens also pointed out how $100 million included in the bond plan to upgrade state parks will boost local economies near those parks. "As mayor of a town that is near one of the 45 state parks that will benefit from the bond package, I am also excited about the money set aside for that purpose. Obviously, these investments are crucial to preserving and protecting the environment, and protecting public health. But investing in infrastructure and park upkeep also serves to promote economic development in cities and towns of all sizes across North Carolina, whether through business growth or by encouraging tourism," she said.

In total, the CONNECT NC bonds will provide $980 million for construction and renovation of buildings on the University of North Carolina system campuses. Another $350 million will go for construction and renovation on community college campuses. State Department of Agriculture projects will receive $179 million, while $70 million has been designated for a National Guard Regional Training Center. Another $8.5 million has been earmarked for public safety efforts. In addition to the $310 million for water and sewer projects and $100 million for state parks, there is also $3 million set aside for the Parks and Recreation Trust Fund to go to local parks.

Although details are still being worked out on exactly how some of these funds will be distributed, the water and sewer money has been designated for communities in Tier 1 and Tier 2 counties. The money will not go into the federal state revolving funds, but instead will largely serve as seed money for existing state water and wastewater loan funds, which have traditionally been underfunded. It is expected that $210 million will create a revolving loan fund, which over 20 years will make over twice that amount available for local projects. The remaining $100 million will go into an existing grant program.

For state parks, a number stand to see improvements of better than $1 million, with $5.7 million going to the development of a newer park near Fayetteville, Carvers Creek State Park; $2.8 million to a visitors center at Eno River State Park; and $3 million to a visitors center at Lake James State Park. Much of the state park money is earmarked for campground development and improvements.

The $3 million designated for the State Parks and Recreation Trust Fund will provide matching grants for local governments and public authorities to adapt local parks and park facilities to better meet the needs of children and veterans with disabilities. The grants will require a 25 percent local match and no single grant will exceed $500,000. The state Parks and Recreation Authority will announce a date for submittal of applications for the competitive grants if and once the bond referendum passes.

Former State Supreme Court Justice Bob Orr, who is a co-chair of the CONNECT NC bond committee and one the state’s highly respected elder statesmen, said the key to the plan is strengthening many of the state’s greatest assets. Writing in November, he noted that all of the proposed investments "will provide targeted, long-term improvements focused on our quality of life."

It is important to point out that these investments will occur without putting undue pressure on state tax rates. The new bonds are expected to be paid utilizing existing taxes and keeping existing tax rates the same, as existing state General Fund-supported debt has been falling for four straight years and is projected by the NC State Treasurer’s Office to continue dropping dramatically through 2019.

Just like with local borrowing projects, the state has come to a point where a significant infusion of infrastructure investment is needed. Top state-level leaders, from the governor to legislative leaders, recognize that fact. So do top elected municipal officials, as represented on the League’s Executive Committee. That wide-ranging, bipartisan support shows how critical the upcoming vote is and how crucial these investments are to the future of North Carolina.