McCrory also talks about two top WNC issues: new crime lab, historic preservation
RALEIGH — Repeating his assertion there’s a robust economic rebound in progress, Gov. Pat McCrory used his annual State of the State address to push for broad new spending on transportation and fixing aging government buildings.
The transportation plan and the renovation effort, dubbed Project Phoenix, were two of a number of initiatives the governor rolled out last night during a lengthy 80-minute speech before a joint session of the state House and Senate.
McCrory told legislators he wants to use $1.2 billion in state bonds to “jumpstart” transportation spending and another $1.2 to $1.4 billion to cover Project Phoenix.
Much of the speech focused on jobs and economic development with the governor asking legislators for a “full set of tools” to draw more businesses to the state.
After a set of major disappointments in recruiting and a changeover in the leadership of the state’s Department of Commerce, McCrory has spent much of the time leading up to the new session calling for more funding for incentives and more flexibility in using them.
The governor also reiterated his support for two key issues for the state’s western region — a new crime lab and the reinstatement of the historic preservation tax credit.
McCrory said he had heard from law enforcement officials in the region that a new lab was a necessity.
He also called the reinstatement of the historic preservation credit vital to communities across the state, especially those trying to rebuild their downtowns.
“Now is not the time to pull the plug on a strategy that has created jobs and new investment,” McCrory said.
Legislators wrote the credit out of the tax code last year as part of a tax reform package, but McCory’s call for reinstatement won him a warm response from most legislators. One who sat out the applause was Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, whose approval is a must for passage.
Reaction to the speech was mixed on policy proposals, but generally upbeat when it came to the governor’s investment agenda.
Jack W. L. Thomson, executive director of Preservation Society of Asheville and Buncombe County, said the organization applauds the governor’s willingness to make the push for the tax credit a priority.
In a response to the speech emailed to Carolina Public Press, Thompson said the credit has long been under scrutiny of budget hawks, but that, over the years, it has proven its effectiveness.
“The rehab credit was formed in the 1990’s with a sunset clause in place, empowering accusations that this powerful program should now be set aside,” he said. “However, even the casual observer can see that the credit’s decades of success in the arenas job creation, downtown and neighborhood stabilization and a massive appreciation in property values merits a reconsideration of even the most conservative of policy makers. Bipartisan support of the credit is in place today but is stymied by a handful of powerful legislative leaders.”
He said the new version of the credit McCory will proposed should satisfy some of the budget concerns and that he believes the “power of preservation” would help make the case.
“The ‘but for’ argument prevails: But for these rehab tax credits, many historic downtowns, including our own Asheville, would still be suffering from decline; the economic revitalization stemming from the preservation of important places would not be realized,” he said.
Asheville Democrat Rep. Susan Fisher said she’s also upbeat about the prospects for the reinstatement of the preservation credit.
But Fisher and other Democrats questioned McCrory’s overall agenda, saying much of it is wishful thinking — even in a legislature where his party enjoys a strong majority.
Fisher said she did not think McCrory’s pronouncement that the state’s economy was back on its feet took into account that, while jobs are increasing, many of them are low-paying.
“He just glossed over that so many middle class families are struggling,” she said. “I’m not sure who he’s talking about.”
Fisher said it was also worrisome to hear the governor praise an injured highway patrolman in one part of his speech and then talk of rampant fraud by state employees seeking workers compensation.
“There were some inconsistencies in the conversation he’s trying to have with the public,” she said.
Another example, she said, was in talking about paying down the state’s debt, but also seeking billions in bonds. The new transportation bond, she said “will be a difficult pill to swallow.”
Much of what the governor proposed on Wednesday will be rolled into his formal budget proposal, which he said would be released in a few weeks.
Other key parts of the governor’s plan
• fulfill promise to raise starting teacher pay to $35,000
• eliminate unneeded tests
• expedite teacher certification
• “Increase the commercialization” of university research
• $1.2 billion bond to start projects that have received environmental permits and are ready to start
• focus will be on relieving congestion, improving safety and connectivity
Infrastructure and Project Phoenix
• $1.2-1.4 billion general bond (requires voter approval) to “revitalize our crumbling buildings and tear down buildings that cannot be saved”
Health and Public Safety
• pass Healthy NC, a “physician-led Medicaid reform”
• Explore “health-care options for the uninsured”
• Addressing retention and safety issues for corrections officers
Efficiency and Improve Operations
• Transfer the state park system, North Carolina Zoo and state aquariums, museums from the Department of Natural and Environmental Resources to the Department of Cultural Resources