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If we don't pay for bond issue now, state will most assuredly pay later
By Robert F. Mulligan, Ph.D.
Published 10/19/00

This November, North Carolinians will vote on a $ 3.1 billion bond issue for higher education. These bonds will fund repairs and new construction on all 16 campuses of The University of North Carolina and throughout the 59 campuses of the community college system. Let me admit my bias from the beginning. I teach at Western, so naturally I favor the bond issue.

The bonds will fund an unprecedented need, one that would be nearly impossible for the state to pay for all at once. The state must increase enrollment capacity by nearly 50,000 students in the 16 UNC institutions and more than 50,000 in the community colleges.

This increase in capacity is needed to accommodate North Carolina's growing population and modernizing economy. If we don't provide a workforce educated to 21st-century standards, the state's economic growth and opportunity will be limited. To stay competitive, North Carolina employers will be forced to relocate, and many of the best remaining jobs will go to people educated in other states.

The bond issue will pay for buildings, modernization, and infrastructure needed to increase capacity, meet modern standards and building codes, and enable us to provide our students 21st-century instruction. Admittedly, $3.1 billion is a lot of money, and I'm afraid some might vote against the bond issue because they fear it may lead to higher taxes.

That fear is really unfounded. In reality, taxes are more likely to be higher without the bonds than with them. Here's what would happen without the bonds, from an economist's perspective. Without the extra capacity the bonds will fund, state universities and community colleges won't be able to provide enough educated workers to fuel a rapidly growing economy.

Without the highly educated workforce, the state's economy can't grow. Just when North Carolina's economic growth starts to be constrained by limited capacity in higher education, the state university's capital needs will become increasingly urgent, and will have to be funded in increasing amounts out of general revenues.

In that case, not only will we need to raise taxes, but we'll also need to raise tuition and fees, and fund more financial aid. And even after all that, North Carolinians' access to higher education will stay relatively limited as long as enrollment capacity lags behind demand.

And if we don't act fast enough to ensure continued economic growth and development in North Carolina, the tax base won't keep up with the state's expenses. That means higher taxes. If the bond issue passes, increased enrollment capacity and, more importantly, increased quality of instruction we're able to provide our students will ensure strong support for economic growth and development. With the bonds, the tax base would be strengthened. This is admittedly speculative, but all other things equal, the state could generate the same revenue with lower taxes.

Most of the buildings at Western and throughout the UNC system are old, though they have been well maintained, particularly at Western. At my undergraduate institution in Chicago, the administration decided they could save money by putting off reroofing the buildings. Ten years after they put on 10-year roofs, they decided they could put off this expensive reroofing job for just one more year.

They did that a few times, and after a while, I think they forgot about it. When I was an undergrad there, all the roofs were about 30 years old, and all the roofs were leaking. These were not tiny, well-behaved, minor leaks, either, because when it rains, it pours.

Western is not like that. Everything the state builds is built to last 100 years. And we take good care of those buildings. But they age, just like people. When someone's hip wears out, it needs to be replaced. We're not looking for cosmetic surgery or orthodontics. This is more like getting new glasses, or a hearing aid, or a pacemaker.

Imagine a chemistry lab built in the 1950s. The moveable equipment could be all new, but the plumbing is worn out. The face shower, an emergency equipment item that's only used for demonstrations, or in case someone's really splashed acid in their face, is an old design that probably didn't work well when it was new. There are no exhaust hoods, big glass-enclosed boxes to vent toxic gases outside.

The next generation of nurses, physicians, chemists and pharmacists needs to be taught chemistry in modern facilities. You wouldn't someone without the best, most up-to-date training caring for the medical needs of you or your family.

There is one basic reason for all North Carolinians to vote for the bond issue - it's an investment in North Carolina, one that will pay for itself many times over in the years to come.

Mulligan is a visiting assistant professor in the Department of Economics, Finance, & International Business at Western Carolina University.

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