State Rep. Chris Millis, R-Pender, believes voters were misled into believing the $2 billion Connect NC bond referendum passed in March mainly will finance roads and bridges, and has introduced legislation to strip $490 million of bond funding from state universities and reallocate it for roads, bridges, and transportation infrastructure.
House Bill 1106 is now before the House Finance Committee. If passed, it would go to the Appropriations Committee.
“I’ll definitely be advocating for a hearing very soon,” Millis said. “I’ve heard nothing from leadership as of yet, but again I haven’t approached them yet as well.”
“The Millis bill is not going to disrupt anything” regarding the bond in its current makeup, said state Budget Director Drew Heath. “I don’t see any way that bill could move forward.”
But Millis contends the measure is gaining steam.
“I’m really hoping that from the momentum that it’s gaining from throughout the state, and hopefully throughout the legislature, that we’ll have an opportunity to have this bill heard, and let the voters decide,” Millis said.
He has lined up fellow state Reps. Mark Brody, R-Union; Justin Burr, R-Stanly; Rick Catlin, R-New Hanover; George Cleveland, R-Onslow; Debra Conrad, R-Forsyth; Carl Ford, R-Rowan; Mitchell Setzer, R-Catawba; and Mike Speciale, R-Craven, as co-sponsors.
While voters overwhelmingly passed a referendum in March to approve the spending, “The title of the bond, and the fact that you had these signs everywhere that said Connect NC, I really think that one could argue very heavily that people were really misinformed about what they were voting on” by thinking it was for transportation projects, Millis said.
To support his contention, he cited a January Civitas Institute poll, taken more than a month before the March bond vote. In response to a fill-in-the-blank question on that survey 58 percent of Republicans and 50 percent of Democrats said when they heard the word infrastructure they thought of transportation, roads, highways, or roads and bridges.
The next closest answer was buildings, which was named by 12 percent of Democrats and 11 percent of Republicans. Higher education expenses did not factor in to the responses.
During the formative stages of the bond package, Millis said, lawmakers, political and business leaders, and the media robustly discussed the huge transportation needs of the state.
Phil Kirk, president/CEO emeritus of the North Carolina Chamber, wrote an op-ed saying the bond was vital to meet “transportation needs,” and that Gov. Pat McCrory’s plan would fund 27 highway projects, and 176 paving projects in 57 counties, Millis said. Transportation Secretary Nick Tennyson was quoted as saying the purpose of the bond should be “connecting people with opportunity.”
Millis said H.B. 1106 “would mitigate some of the misinformation that was disseminated throughout the Connect NC bond campaign, and redirect $490 million of its approved funds to more urgent transportation needs.”
Millis opposed the bond when it was considered by the General Assembly and earlier he publicly had criticized borrowing money to build more buildings on UNC System campuses.
Millis has pointed to a Pope Center for Higher Education analysis finding the average classroom seat in the UNC System is utilized only 18 hours per week, and the average lab seat is used only 11 hours per week. He believes universities should be required to use their existing facilities more efficiently before receiving hundreds of millions of dollars from taxpayer-backed loans.
The UNC System Board of Governors “has not taken any formal position on this bill, but we believe the General Assembly and the voters have already clearly expressed their intentions for the use of the Connect NC bond proceeds,” said system spokeswoman Joni Worthington.
“The composition of the bond package was extensively debated in the General Assembly, and, as you know, the bond passed by a wide margin in 99 of 100 counties,” Worthington said.
“It’s also important to note that the legislature ended the annual transfer of $200 million from the Highway Trust Fund to the General Fund so that the state could invest more in transportation without taking on new debt,” she said.
“I have not looked into the issue in depth, but there has been some discussion about it,” Heath said of the Millis bill. “I don’t think anyone’s taking that bill seriously because I don’t think that there is any way that they can legally make that happen. I think there was some surprise that the House even let that bill get filed.”
Asked how the bond process would be affected if the bill were passed, Heath replied, “The chances are so remote I haven’t even thought about it.”
He said the Office of State Budget and Management “is engaged. We’ve got a statewide working group” preparing for issuance of the first round of bonds.
“We’re getting projects lined up in terms of cash flow needs from agencies and the university system, and we’re kind of centralizing all of that,” Heath said. “You’re going to see some agenda items start to appear on the Council of State agenda for approval. The bond is happening.”