News: CJ Exclusives

Success of Local Bonds May Not Translate Statewide

Analysts says $2 billion bond package will require major PR push

RALEIGH — Voters in five municipalities passed all 16 bond referendums on Tuesday’s ballot, mostly by wide margins, but some political observers caution against reading too much into those results as a way of predicting the passage of a pending $2 billion state bond package.

“I think I’d be a little hesitant to say that this means that the $2 billion bond issue is going to pass” on the March 15 ballot, said David McLennan, a visiting professor of political science at Meredith College. “It’s a difficult connection to make between local bonds and state bonds.”

Local voters more easily see the benefit of passing local bond issues, he said.

“The difficulty with the large bond issue at the state level that’s going to be on the ballot is some communities aren’t going to see the direct benefit from it,” McLennan said.

“Trying to predict what the mood of the electorate will be in five months from very localized elections is pretty much a guessing game,” said Michael Bitzer, provost and professor of politics and history at Catawba College.

While voters may see local measures as ways to improve communities, statewide issues may not inspire the same kind of understanding and support, he said.

“It will be incumbent on those supporting the bond package to make a convincing public campaign and argument across the state,” Bitzer said.

Voters in Chapel Hill on Tuesday approved 10 bonds worth $80.6 million for street and sidewalk improvements, stormwater and solid waste infrastructure, trails and greenways, and recreational facilities. None of those bonds got lower than 72.48 percent approval, and two received more than 80 percent yes votes.

Fuquay-Varina passed three improvement bonds worth $26 million for transportation, water, and sewer, all with either 82 or 83 percent approval.

Greenville passed a $15.85 million street and pedestrian transportation bond with 70.49 percent approval, Apex passed a $15 million street and sidewalk bond with an 84.6 percent affirmative vote, and Bald Head Island passed a $10 million broadband bond 51.3 percent to 48.7 percent.

The only referendum that failed, with a 68.49 percent no vote, was a property tax increase for recreation in Drexel.

The state infrastructure bond championed by Gov. Pat McCrory and Republican leaders in the General Assembly would allow voters to approve about $2 billion in borrowing for repairs and expansion.

The spending targets new and refurbished buildings on UNC system campuses and at community colleges, improvements to state parks and the North Carolina Zoo, water and sewer infrastructure, and agricultural research.

“For those of us who live in the Triangle, we know the projects that were included in the bond. We may work near or at those places like universities. We see them,” McLennan said.

But people in more rural parts of the state who aren’t as included in the bond projects may develop a sort of Not In My Back Yard philosophy.

“Because it’s not in my back yard I don’t necessarily have the same feeling as I do for the street in my neighborhood that needs a new sewer put into it,” McLennan said.

He’s not prepared to say voters’ enthusiasm for the local bond projects suggests they think the state is in a strong economic position.

Generally speaking, voters are favorable to street, water, and sewer projects regardless of the economic climate, he said.

And in many local bonds the case is made that passage is connected directly to a better economy, he said.

“So I think it’s not necessarily a sign that they are 100 percent feeling good about the economy, but they may see the connection between the money that is spent from the bond and the potential improvement to the local or state economies,” McLennan said.

“The biggest takeaway I would have from yesterday is people are willing to spend money if they see that, a) it’s a need, and, b) it’s going to provide some benefits,” McLennan said.

Dallas Woodhouse, executive director of the North Carolina Republican Party, said the party has taken no position on the state bond package, and he is not certain that it will.

He agrees with McLennan and Bitzer that voters tend to view local bond issues differently than statewide bonds.

However, he said, “reading the tea leaves, I think it does bode well” for the state bonds that all the local ones passed on Tuesday, and economic circumstances will play a role in voting on the state package.

“People can see the improved fiscal health of the state, the better caretaking of taxpayer resources, the improved employment situation, and the ability to borrow at a very low rate” without raising taxes, Woodhouse said. That “will likely give the bond a pretty good footing.”

He said voters will appreciate the self-governance aspect of being able to vote on the bond, noting that there has not been a statewide bond referendum since 2000.

“Under the Democrats there was a lot of borrowing without taxpayer approval. I think no matter how people feel about the bond, the fact that it will not raise taxes, you’re borrowing money at a low rate, and people will get a legitimate opportunity to weigh in on it, will all be things that voters take into account,” Woodhouse said.

Democratic Party officials did not respond to requests for comment on this story.

Dan E. Way (@danway_carolina) is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.