ATLANTA -- North Carolina's legislature is nearing approval for the sale of about $700 million of general obligation debt, state budget officials said yesterday.
If approved by lawmakers and affirmed by voters, such an authorization would be by far the state's largest GO bond package ever, surpassing $300 million of bonds for roads and $230 million for water projects authorized in 1977.
North Carolina voters have not defeated a state bond proposal since 1961.
Although the legislature is expected to approve the bond issue, some details have yet to be decided, including the exact breakdown of how proceeds would be spent.
Last week, the House Finance Committee passed its version of the bond bill. which would ask voters to approve a total of $734 million of new GO debt. The package would comprise $311 million for community colleges, $303 million for universities, and $120 million for water and sewer projects.
This compares with a $759 million package endorsed by the Senate Finance Committee the previous week. The Senate proposal sets out $298 million for universities, $211 million for community colleges, $150 million for water and sewer projects, and $100 million for parks and recreation.
"Right now, House members see $100 million more for community colleges than the Senate, though [House members] don't see the parks and recreations projects as a top priority, " said David Crotts, the legislature's senior fiscal analyst. "But most people here think these differences will be worked out and the legislature will eventually authorize about $700 million. "
Both packages compare with bond proposals before the legislature earlier this year that requested about $1 billion of new debt, including about $250 million of bonds for local school districts. Under a compromise worked out two weeks ago, the schools will instead get a guaranteed share of local sales taxes to pay for construction projects.
In the 1992 legislative session, North Carolina lawmakers considered but failed to authorize about $400 million of proposed general obligation bonds for colleges. The deadlock over bonds occurred after the Senate passed legislation authorizing $271 million for the state's university system and $127 million for community colleges. But representatives objected to the bond bill, saying that the legislature must first find a specific funding source to cover the debt.
Crotts said that final approval of a bond bill is not expected for at least a week, as lawmakers must first complete work on the state's operating budget for fiscal 1994, which begins July 1. The budget, which will be based on anticipated general fund revenues of about $8.8 billion, is currently being worked out in a conference committee.
Debt service on the bond package would require a general-fund appropriation of between $60 million and $70 million a year, said Crotts. Robert High, executive director of North Carolina's Local Government Commission, which oversees all debt issuance in the state, said he is not overly concerned about the prospect of $700 million in additional GOs.
"Given our low debt burden, the amount of bonds being talked about would not. per se, be a big worry for us as long as it is used for a good purpose," High said.
James Dearborn, an assistant vice president of state ratings at Moody's Investors Service, said that North Carolina could easily handle the added borrowings.
"North Carolina would not seem to have a problem with affording this," Dearborn said.
Moody's. Standard & Poor's Corp., and Fitch Investors Service Inc. all rate North Carolina's approximately $650 million of outstanding GOs triple-A.
Consideration of the added GO debt in North Carolina comes as the state's economy is on an upswing. According to High, the state could end the current fiscal year with over $200 million more than expected in revenue collections. Through the first 11 months of fiscal 1993, revenues have totaled $6.96 billion, or about $190 million above the anticipated $6.77 billion.