LUMBERTON — Unless state senators have a quick change of heart, a proposed bond referendum that could provide about $29.6 million in projects benefiting Robeson County will not be put up for voter approval anytime soon.
The bill has cleared the state House.
“I think it’s a shame that the Senate has not considered this bill,” said Sen. Jane Smith, a Democrat from Lumberton. “We need to do something now for our infrastructure and transportation needs.”
Smith said that each day that the state’s roads and bridges go without needed improvements, safety becomes more of an issue.
“We have a tremendous need for our bridges and roads to be improved. During the recession we put off a lot of things that should have been done,” Smith said. “We need to get things done before real safety issues arise.”
The House on Aug. 6 passed by a 76 to 29 vote the Connect N.C. Bond Act of 2015. The bill calls for a statewide bond referendum not to exceed $2.8 billion, with $2.46 billion going toward infrastructure and $400 million for transportation improvements.
The money would be used for new construction of and improvements to highways, bridges and related infrastructure; universities, community colleges and public school systems; state parks; cultural and agricultural facilities; and other public state and local facilities.
Robeson County’s four representatives, all Democrats, voted in favor of the bill.
“This referendum would give voters a chance to decide how they want tax dollars to be spent,” said Rep. Charles Graham. “In this case, the voters would be determining the future condition of our infrastructure.”
Robeson County would get $13,144,802 for new schools, additions and renovations; $4,492,942 for new construction, repairs and renovations at Robeson Community College; and $10 million for The University of North Carolina at Pembroke to renovate West Hall. Also, $3,305,000 would be available to develop the property of the former North Carolina Indian Cultural Center, near Pembroke, into a state park.
House members say that with strong opposition coming from Republican leaders in the Senate, the bill is unlikely to even get a hearing before the end of the current session, killing any chance of it being on the ballot in the fall.
Senate leaders have said that other means of funding need to be found for transportation and infrastructure projects that don’t require the state to take on more debt.
The Senate received the House bill Aug. 10 and it was immediately sent to the Ways and Means Committee.
“They are sending a strong signal that they won’t do anything with this bill,” said Rep. Ken Goodman, who represents part of Robeson County. “It’s been sent to Ways and Means and that committee doesn’t even meet. That committee is where bills are usually sent to die.”
Gov. Pat McCrory, who kicked off a statewide campaign in May to drum up support for his $2.8 billion Connect N.C. Bond Proposal, isn’t getting Senate support either.
The House proposal in many respects mirrors the governor’s. But while the governor’s plan calls for splitting bond money evenly between transportation and infrastructure programs, the House chose a different path for distributing the money.
“The priorities are different,” Goodman said. “The House plan provides less for highways and transportation projects than the governor’s plan. It also puts more toward the state’s universities, colleges and public schools.”
Education funding is significantly increased in the House proposal. State university system campuses receive $900 million in the House proposal, up from $500 million in the governor’s plan. The House plan also includes an additional project for the UNC System.
The House proposal, unlike the governor’s, includes an allocation for K-12 education. The schools allocation of $500 million is included in a “capital assistance program” designated to help fund new construction and renovations.
Smith said that while the future of the House proposal in the Senate looks dim, the bill is not necessarily dead.
“You never know what might happen,” she said.