Patrick Gannon: Bonds test McCrory’s muscle

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, July 21, 2015

The clock is ticking on Gov. Pat McCrory and his bond referendum idea.

The first-term governor wants voters to decide this November whether the state should borrow billions of dollars for transportation and state building projects.

But many forces – time included – are working against him. He knows it.

Last week, the governor met privately and separately with the House and Senate Republican caucuses, which hold the key to his bond plans and, in some ways, his gubernatorial legacy. And while he reportedly talked about several issues, his bond proposal was at the top of the list. McCrory didn’t want to speak to reporters after his meetings with the caucuses, but we all know the priority he is placing on the bond packages.

His communications staff has sent out no fewer than 24 press releases since June 1 about them, far more than any other topic. McCrory has traveled the state touting the plan and invited people to the Executive Mansion to do the same. He’s trumpeted support from a wide variety of interests, including numerous cities and counties, state parks advocates, newspaper editorial boards and business leaders.

But the most important group for him to convince is the General Assembly, and increasing spending on anything is a tall order with this crowd. One criticism of McCrory in political circles is that he hasn’t been able to steer the legislature in his direction on his top priorities. The bond issue is a true test of his political might.

Hope remains for the governor.

Two prominent House Republicans told me last week that their chamber is working on legislation to put a referendum on the ballot, although it’s not clear whether it would be this year or next.

“It’s not going to look exactly like what the governor’s put forth, but I think from a House perspective it takes some of his best ideas and encompasses that in the bill,” said Rep. Dean Arp, a Monroe Republican working on bond legislation.

The consensus has been that legislators don’t want to spend too much on road projects through bonds, but would rather focus the spending on university, public safety, parks and other infrastructure projects. Transportation dollars can be found by eliminating transfers from highway funds and through other means, rather than borrowing.

Expect to see the House legislation within a couple of weeks.

But if such a plan passes the House, the much more miserly Senate will have to agree, and support from that side of the building hasn’t been strong publicly.

There’s also a twist that no one is talking about. If a statewide bond referendum goes on the ballot this year, that would necessitate the opening of more than 1,000 voting precincts – about a third of all precincts across the state – that otherwise wouldn’t be opened. Odd-numbered years are devoted to municipal elections, and in areas where there aren’t any, the bond referendum would be the only item on ballots.

That means a significant cost to counties. McCrory wants the state to reimburse them and says the cost would be more than made up for in savings on the bond projects because interest rates will be lower now than they would be, say, a year from now.

McCrory wants his legacy as governor to include a focus on infrastructure, which he says will help create jobs and promote economic development.

Now it’s up to the Legislature to oblige – or not. Asked whether he believed a bond referendum was still in the cards for this November, Arp replied: “I’m an optimist.”

Patrick Gannon writes for Capitol Press Association.