Opinion: Daily Journal

Defending one of state government’s best reforms

It’s rare to see North Carolina lawmakers vote overwhelmingly against a bill. It’s especially noteworthy when that “no” vote helps preserve one of state government’s most valuable reforms.

That’s exactly what happened Thursday when the Senate voted 44-1 to reject House Bill 110. Each of the three senators who spoke against the measure cited provisions in the bill that would have eroded the state’s Strategic Transportation Investments program.

H.B. 110 and its counterpart legislation, Senate Bill 3, started life as a compilation of recommendations from the Joint Legislative Transportation Oversight Committee. A Senate supporter labeled it an “agency bill,” meaning that its content stemmed largely from ideas generated within a state agency.

In this case, the N.C. Department of Transportation and its Division of Motor Vehicles would face proposed changes targeting such items as DOT property sales, emissions tests for hybrid cars, and rules regarding temporary vehicle registration tags.

With some modifications, S.B. 3 sailed through the Senate, 46-0, on April 20. On the same day, the House approved its version with a much closer vote: 65-50.

During committee work, the House had added one major new component to the mix. Called the Megaproject Fund, it was designed to “fund higher-cost and larger-scale transportation projects.” Specifically, supporters wanted to address projects totaling at least $200 million. The Megaproject Fund would be created within North Carolina’s existing Highway Trust Fund.

DOT would oversee a seven-member work group that would select Megaprojects for funding. Work group members would represent existing organizations serving city councils, county commissioners, urban mayors, and local and regional planning organizations.

Neither of S.B. 3’s primary sponsors, Republican Sens. Kathy Harrington of Gaston County and Bill Rabon of Brunswick County, supported the Megaproject Fund. “This is the single worst piece of legislation I’ve seen in the years I’ve been here,” Harrington said during a Senate Transportation Committee meeting Wednesday.

“In my opinion, it goes directly behind the back of the STI, which is currently working,” Harrington added the following day, when the bill hit the Senate floor. “The STI is some of the best work we’ve done since I’ve been here.”

Rabon said he would “parrot” many of Harrington’s comments. “Just a few years ago, North Carolina was not seen as a good place to do business,” he added. “Now it is seen as one of the best places — if not the best place — in the nation to start a new business.”

Part of the credit for that changing perception goes to recent tax reforms, Rabon said. Part of the credit goes to STI. “We took the politics out of transportation, and that was a huge step,” he said. “The world took notice when we did that. To go back on that and to put politics back in is a step backward … into the last century and what was going on a couple of decades ago. I don’t think we can afford for that to happen.”

Republican senators were not alone in praising STI. “I supported it 200 percent,” said Sen. Floyd McKissick, D-Durham. “We should not turn our back on that process. We established rules, processes, and procedures. We need to follow them, even if they don’t always create the outcomes that we would prefer.”

Politicians have good reason to tout STI’s benefits. John Locke Foundation Chairman John Hood has labeled the 2013 law the “single-biggest change” in state transportation policy in the past decade.

Transportation projects now compete with each other based on “clearly stated goals” linked to traffic congestion, safety, and efficient movement of people and goods. “North Carolina is on the leading edge of a national movement to rethink how transportation dollars are spent,” Hood wrote last year.

There’s still room for improvement.

In defending STI on the Senate floor, Rabon cited the case of CSX’s Carolina Connector project. The $272 million transit hub had secured STI funding. Rabon recounted a meeting he and Harrington had with CSX executives. “What they had to say was, ‘We believe in North Carolina because when you folks make a promise to business, you keep your promise. In an industry like ours that has to plan into the future, we need certainty.’”

Carolina Journal reporting has raised questions about the CSX project’s value for N.C. taxpayers. Those questions suggest the STI formula could be refined and updated. (Part of that refinement also could address concerns from Megaproject Fund supporters that STI doesn’t account for large-scale projects.)

But clearly the process of planning North Carolina’s publicly funded transportation projects has moved in the right direction. It’s worth highlighting a case in which politicians work to preserve one of their most important achievements.

Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation.