Our View: Vote yes-Bond referendum a mandate on education

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Voting “yes” in support of the $2 billion Connect NC bond referendum may not be as obvious a choice to the general voting public as many of its architects are advocating. But a closer at what’s at stake should lead the vast majority of state voters to that conclusion.

In an era when the North Carolina Legislature is anything but prone - based on current performance and its own conservative agenda - to embrace more taxpayer-funded support of university and community college infrastructure needs, this bond is the only alternative we see for updating these institutions. Hence, area residents have good reason to vote in favor of the bond during next month’s March 15 primary.

The Connect NC bond would channel about $21 million to projects in local counties, including about $13 million to Elizabeth City State University and $6.6 million to college of the Albemarle. The money would be spent on renovations at Moore Hall and the G.R. Little Library at ECSU and for long-needed library upgrades and other facility improvements at COA. Additionally, the Dismal Swamp State Park in Camden would get $990,750 for improvements.

All told, nearly half of the bond would be spent on the University of North Carolina system; about $350 million is targeted for community colleges; and another $313 million is earmarked for state parks and water-sewer projects.

Granted, the bond is heavily weighted toward higher education, with the UNC system and state community colleges gaining the most. That’s reason enough to support the measure, since those institutions play such a key role in driving the state’s economic development, job growth and investment - not tax cuts to the wealthy, as some in the Legislature have preached. The education/economics relationship has been a steady force in this state. In fact, before the crash of 2008, North Carolina’s economy had been chugging along quite well, with N.C.’s focus on higher ed convincing businesses to locate and do business in this state. The most glaring example of this relationship is Research Triangle Park where a triangulation of universities - call it the “cerebral cortex” of higher education - within the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill enclave created an investment magnet that fueled much of the state’s economic development for decades. RTP even proved to be a model for other states searching for ways to jumpstart their economies.

Accordingly, even in less developed and rural areas, economic growth is still dependent on a highly trained labor force and an intellectual infrastructure that attracts investment. Voters tuned in to what drives economic development and its connections to a first class system of higher ed should be voting yes to the bond referendum.
Timing is also good. Another enticement that should sway voters toward support is the bond payback structure. Conditions for financing the $2 billion bond are extremely favorable now. North Carolina’s AAA credit rating is excellent, and the current interest rates are at historical lows. Paying back the borrowed capital at the state’s current growth rate should, barring an economic calamity, allow retirement of the debt without an impact on taxes. Of course, that same benefit of avoiding taxes extends to financing for COA’s infrastructure needs, which is mostly a local obligation.

These points make a sound case for passage, but there is another, equally compelling, reason for passing the bond, though it may not be so obvious: The referendum itself, is a referendum on higher education.

As pointed out above, this Legislature is not as convinced of the needs of higher education as past Legislatures. And if the bond is defeated, it will send a raw and harmful message to those who fund the budgets and determine the future of our colleges and universities. A defeated bond referendum is in fact a mandate that will be used for years, perhaps decades, by those who control - and limit - education spending.

A strong, decisive vote for this referendum will surely send the message that North Carolinians value their colleges and universities and education in general. And for those doubters in the Legislature who typically resist education funding, a successful referendum will speak volumes to them about the voters’ priorities.

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