- Associated Press - Friday, January 1, 2016

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - The last time North Carolina lawmakers put a bond question on the ballot, voters agreed overwhelmingly in November 2000 to borrow a record $3.1 billion for university and community college projects.

So organizers of a campaign to get the public behind $2 billion in bonds for scores of government infrastructure and construction projects in a March 15 referendum are looking back for guidance in hopes of a similar outcome.

Like the 2000 campaign, they’ve got support from top political leaders and the established business community. Based on the previous campaign, they set a $3.3 million fundraising goal and already have $1.1 million in cash or pledges. And so far no organized opposition has surfaced, as before.

But there are differences that increase uncertainty entering the campaign’s 10-week dash, beginning with a rally next week at North Carolina State University. Event speakers include Republican Gov. Pat McCrory, who lobbied the General Assembly hard in 2015 for the bonds, and longtime Democratic legislator Dan Blue.

“Everything’s been very positive so far, but it is a much bigger challenge than it was 15 years ago,” said Bob Orr, a former state Supreme Court justice and key leader of the pro-referendum “Connect NC Committee.”

Pro-bond forces have three fewer weeks compared to the 2000 window between signing the bill with the bond question and the actual referendum. Thanksgiving and Christmas further condensed the schedule. The referendum also is on the same day as the statewide primary, not the general election in 2000.

Although elections for president, governor, U.S. Senate and the Council of State seats are on ballots, turnout is unclear as the primary date was moved up two months in hopes of wielding more influence in the presidential nominations. A highly competitive GOP presidential primary, for example, could spike television commercial prices and squeeze ad time, said Alastair Macaulay with Cornerstone Solutions, one of two consulting groups hired to run the campaign.

Also different is the bond package, which must receive a majority of votes statewide for debt to be issued.

The entire 2000 package went to higher education construction. This package is more diversified, which committee leaders believe expands support.

Aside from more than $1.3 billion for the University of North Carolina and community college systems, there’s $309.5 million for water and sewer loans and grants. There’s also construction money for parks, the North Carolina Zoo, the National Guard and the Department of Agriculture.

What’s absent is road construction money, something McCrory wanted but legislative leaders left out. It was one reason given as more than 20 legislators voted against the final proposal. Two House members who voted no said in interviews they weren’t aware of any organized effort to defeat the bond question. “I’m not going to encourage people one way or another,” said Rep. Harry Warren, R-Rowan.

Donald Bryson, the North Carolina director for fiscal watchdog group Americans for Prosperity, said it’s not getting involved in the bond campaign because it has other priorities in 2016 and “a finite amount of resources.”

Recent news North Carolina’s population surpassed 10 million people - 2 million more since 2000 - came at a good time for bond supporters. They point out construction bonds are needed to keep up with that population growth and aren’t expected to require new taxes to repay the debt.

Despite a flap over whether campaign rules allow 2016 candidates to appear in referendum ads, committee leaders want to keep the bond debate apolitical, or at least bipartisan. Campaign Connections, a Democratic-leaning campaign consulting firm, also has been hired with Cornerstone Solutions, a Republican firm.

“We’re North Carolinians first and this is about making North Carolina a better state,” said Brad Crone with Campaign Connections. “There really have not been any partisan overtones at all.”

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