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1st North Carolina bond question since 2000 going to voters

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — A bipartisan campaign to persuade North Carolina voters to let the state borrow $2 billion for scores of government construction and water projects effectively began Wednesday as Gov. Pat McCrory signed the legislation authorizing the referendum.

The proposed debt package, approved by the General Assembly before it adjourned three weeks ago, now will be the subject of a pro-bond effort leading to the March 15 question. A majority must vote ‘yes’ for the debt to be incurred.

“We’re going to be traveling across the state educating people on investing in the future of North Carolina,” McCrory said during the ceremony on N.C. State University’s Centennial Campus, attended by legislative leaders, university chiefs and agriculture officials among others. His itinerary through Thursday had him talking up bonds in Kinston and Charlotte and at Stone Mountain State Park.

The referendum marks the first statewide bond question on the ballot since 2000, a $3.1 billion bond issue for the university and community college systems approved by a nearly 3-to-1 margin. Since then, McCrory said, the state’s population has grown by 2 million and the needs are great after years of delayed repairs and construction during the Great Recession.

“We have significant infrastructure needs from the mountains to the coast,” McCrory told the hundreds who attended. “This is the time to make this investment, at a time when interest rates will never be lower.”

About two-thirds of the bond proceeds would go to the UNC system and to all 58 community college campuses. But money also would go toward water infrastructure grants and loans, state parks, the North Carolina zoo, National Guard construction and a new Department of Agriculture laboratory.

The agriculture department now has four different labs that on average are 43 years old, Commissioner Steve Troxler said. A plant sciences building — shared with N.C. State University — also would be built from approved bonds.

“We’re united in agriculture to make sure that this bond does pass and we move this state forward,” Troxler said.

McCrory had lobbied for several months to get a $3 billion bond package, with some money for road projects and a referendum this fall.

But fellow Republican lawmakers pared it down, taking out road projects because they were addressed in the state budget through new revenue, added water and sewer projects and pushed the vote back to the primary election. House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, and Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, said after the ceremony they’re fully on board to get the bonds approved.

McCrory named Moore and Berger among the honorary co-chairs of a pro-bond referendum effort expected to be created. Democrats on that list include Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson and Senate Minority Leader Dan Blue of Wake County. Other co-chairs include Ann Goodnight, the wife of SAS chief executive Jim Goodnight; Jack Cecil, president of Biltmore Farms in Asheville; and Duke Energy Foundation executive “Stick” Williams.

The governor also named five “working group” members expected to do more day-to-day campaigning, including AT&T North Carolina President Vanessa Harrison and former state Supreme Court Justice Bob Orr.

Referendum committees have more latitude in receiving campaign contributions. Unlike candidate committees, they are allowed to take unlimited amounts of money from corporations and other associations.

It’s unclear if an anti-bond committee would be formed. Twenty House members voted against the final package, with some calling the borrowing unnecessary. McCrory counters that the bonds wouldn’t require a tax increase to repay and they fit within the state’s self-imposed debt limits.

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