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March 15 Deciding Day For Connect NC

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Connect NC
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There’s a big question on the March 15 primary election ballot, and it has nothing to do with the presidential race.

A $2 billion bond referendum is on the ballot. It’s called Connect NC, and it’s intended to upgrade college campuses and improve infrastructure at state facilities.

This bond referendum is one of the few issues in Statehouse politics that has bipartisan support these days. Governor McCrory proposed the bond package in last year’s State-of-the-State address. Lawmakers overwhelmingly approved it last fall.

Last month, McCrory was in cheerleader mode, during a visit to UNC Charlotte to promote the bond.

“We’ve got dilapidated parks and buildings through the state so it’s not if we need to repair and fix and rebuild them, it’s when we’re going to do it and the longer we wait, the more expensive it will be,” McCrory said. “Now is the time to take the plunge.”

Colleges also have their leaders and PR departments urging voters to approve the bond. More than half of the $2 billion package would go toward UNC System and community college projects.

UNC Charlotte would get $90 million for a new science building. The university has a video on its website with faculty, students and Board of Governor and Trustee members urging people to vote yes on the referendum.

The school’s current science building was built in 1985 for $8 million. Chancellor Phillip DuBois says a lot has changed since then. Today, STEM-related fields represent roughly half of the school’s declared majors.

“Each year, 15,000 students on this campus take laboratory sections in the sciences,” Dubois said. “We can’t respond to the increasing demand without this science building.”

Overall, UNC System schools would get $980 million for new science buildings or renovations. Community colleges, $350 million.

CPCC would receive nearly $10 million. The Elizabeth campus would get a new heating and cooling plant, and the Huntersville campus would get a concrete pad and garage for an expanding truck-driving program.

The bond addresses smaller projects too, such as $2.3 million for water, electrical and sewer hookups at Lake Norman State Park and $750,000 for parking at Crowder's Mountain.

A man is in stable condition after falling 70 feet while hiking Crowders Mountain.
Credit Briana Duggan / WFAE
Crowders Mountain would get additional parking for increased visitors under Connect NC referendum

All this construction has a long-term price tag that exceeds the $2 billion bond package. Interest rates on the bond money will likely vary because not all the bonds will be issued at once. But if all the bonds were issued today, the state would end up paying back nearly $2.8 billion over 20 years.

That concerns Nichole Revels.

“They leave that tax for future generations to pay, that’s my main opposition,” Revels said. “There are better ways to fund important projects for our state. The proper channels would be through the budget appropriations process.”

Revels heads up a grassroots group called NC Against the Bond. There is no call for a tax increase to pay off the bonds, but Revels doesn’t believe that will always be the case.

“The legislators today claiming there won’t have a tax increase have no control over future legislators and the measures they will need to take to pay the debt bill. There is no guaranteed that there won’t be a tax increase,” Revels said.

Connect NC officials say that is unlikely because the state has been paying off existing debt at a fast pace, and overall debt levels will not increase. If Connect NC gets approved, bonds are not expected to be issued before the first of July.