Campbell: North Carolina moving forward

May. 10, 2013 @ 10:58 AM

Government is nothing more than a social contract. An essential function of government is to provide infrastructure for the common good that is too costly, too big or impractical for individuals to undertake themselves. A look at our history reveals that public infrastructure has been funded through bonds, taxes, tolls and the lottery.

We boast the opening of the first public university in 1795, financed in part by a lottery. With stagnation following the Revolution, tolls funded the building of more than 500 miles of plank roads. In 1856, the North Carolina railroad opened with 233 miles of track between Charlotte and Goldsboro, with two-thirds funding from the state and one-third from private investment.

Skip to 1921. Governor Cameron Morrison, “the Good Roads Governor,” convinced the legislature, and later the public, to vote passage of a $50 million road bond issue to build 5,500 miles of roads. Governor Kerr Scott trumped him in 1949, leading passage of $200 million in road bonds for farm-to-market roads. Both were huge and daring investments for those days. But the granddaddy of all North Carolina infrastructure programs was the $3.1 billion higher education bond package passed in 2000.

Swings in the economy and changes in leadership have resulted in North Carolina doing little to maintain our public infrastructure, meanwhile needs grow with more than 100,000 new residents each year. The American Society of Civil Engineers will shortly release a report card of the condition of infrastructure in our state and it promises to be damning. If you started a spreadsheet of the deferred maintenance and growing infrastructure needs in transportation, water and sewer, public buildings like schools, communications, energy and main street revitalization you could easily total upwards of $100 billion.

If my mentor, former State Treasurer Harlan Boyles, were still in office he would boldly state that now is the time for North Carolina to undertake a major public infrastructure improvement campaign. For starters, our unemployment rate is still 8.9 percent and, while it has dropped a little, there are far too many out of work. We’re told that every billion dollars spent in construction creates 28,000 jobs.

We have not seen in our history interest rates as low as today and bond financing, especially for states like ours with a Triple-A credit rating, has never been cheaper. We are still considered a low-debt state by rating agencies. Construction costs are extremely attractive. Investing in public infrastructure will get North Carolina moving forward, significantly lowering our unemployment rate while catching up to and investing in the public infrastructure our state needs in the near term.

The biggest opposition to such a campaign centers on how we will pay for these investments. By law debt service is the first expenditure our legislature must appropriate and our lawmakers would need to find some of the money, but not all, from economy in government. The new jobs created would ripple throughout our economy with resulting revenues through income, sales and other taxes.

Are we less bold and confident in our state’s future than those in our past who started the first public university or who saw the importance of roads, schools, water systems and other public infrastructure? It is time to get NC Moving Forward. Join the campaign.

Tom Campbell is former assistant state treasurer and is creator/host of NC SPIN, a weekly discussion airing Sundays at 6:30 a.m. on WRAL-TV and at 8:30 a.m. on WRAZ-TV FOX50.  Contact him at www.ncspin.com.