Raleigh, N.C. — After agreeing to push back a referendum until next year, the state House on Thursday gave final approval to a plan to put a $2.85 billion bond referendum before North Carolina voters.
The bonds would pay for roads, buildings, and other infrastructure, including nearly $900 million for new buildings or renovations on University of North Carolina campuses across the state. It also includes $300 million for community college projects, $500 million to help counties pay for new or renovated public school buildings and $1.4 billion in combined cash and borrowing for transportation and paving projects.
Gov. Pat McCrory has been lobbying lawmakers for months to get the referendum on the November ballot. But after some members protested Wednesday that the measure was moving too quickly, the legislation was amended Thursday to put it on the ballot in March 2016, when North Carolina will hold its presidential primary.
The Senate still must approve the proposal, and senators have been cool to the idea of going into debt for highway projects. Instead, they have proposed freeing up money for such projects by ending the practice of using Highway Fund money generated by gas taxes for non-construction expenses related to roads, such as State Highway Patrol troopers.
House leaders say the best option is to do both – stop the transfer of Highway Fund money and borrow more money to get more projects underway quickly. They warn that any delay in approving the bond could result in higher interest rates, higher construction costs or both,
The biggest debate Thursday was over a $58.8 million line item in the bond package to build a western School of Science and Mathematics in Burke County.
Burke County is represented by three high-ranking Republicans: House Majority Leader Rep. Mike Hager, House Education Chairman Rep. Hugh Blackwell and Senate Judiciary II Chairman Sen. Warren Daniel. It also adjoins Cleveland County, home of House Speaker Tim Moore. Earlier discussions about a potential Burke County location have mentioned Morganton, on or near the campus of the western North Carolina School for the Deaf.
Rep. Larry Hall, D-Durham, represents the district where the current School of Science and Mathematics is located. Hall tried three amendments to remove the money for the western school, reallocating it to either public schools or to military uses.
But those amendments were unsuccessful, with Republican backers arguing that gifted students in western North Carolina shouldn't have to travel four hours away to Durham.
"Children in western North Carolina have been disadvantaged for about three decades now," said Hager, who said the school would not be in his district per se. "These kids are very impressionable. They need their parents. A school of Science and Math in western North Carolina would level the playing field."
Hall argued that the UNC Board of Governors, which oversees the School of Science and Mathematics, had not asked for the expansion on its list of projects. But Rep. Jonathan Jordan, R-Ashe, an NCSSM alumnus, countered that the board didn't ask for the money because it didn't know extra capital would be available.
Jordan said studies in 2012 and 2013 found that hundreds of eligible students were turned away from the NCSSM due to lack of capacity. The additional campus, which would serve 150 students, wouldn't even keep up with demand, let alone compete, he said.
The bill, with the funding for the western school intact, passed 76-29 on its final House vote and now heads to the Senate.