Add more debt to NJ’s books? NJ voters may decide library bond
TRENTON — Should the state borrow money to improve public libraries? It's not up to Gov. Chris Christie to decide whether to ask voters.
The Senate this week gave final approval to a proposed $125 million bond issue, two weeks after the Assembly did the same. If Christie signs the bill (A222) by late August, the proposal would be decided by a voter referendum in November.
A 2014 survey by the New Jersey Library Association shows half of libraries or more say they need capital improvements such as electricity upgrades, additional space or paint, carpets and furnishings, said executive director Patricia Tumulty,
Nearly half need accessibility upgrades to comply with Americans with Disabilities Act, she said.
“It has been 15 years since we’ve had construction bond money for libraries in New Jersey, and it is very desperately needed,” Tumulty said.
“If the voters say yes, we can go forward with transforming many of our libraries into the kind of community spaces they are meant to be,” she said.
The $125 million in funds the state would borrow, if approved by voters, would be matched dollar for dollar by local governments. Mary Everson, a trustee for the 66-year-old Fanwood Memorial Library, is hopeful.
“Our strategic plan was started in 2012,” Everson said. “We’ve been waiting a really, really long time for this, and we know we could do wonderful things.”
Half of the Legislature signed on as sponsors. But some lawmakers oppose the idea, saying New Jersey’s $43 billion in bonded debt is too high – not to mention the $125 billion in long-term debt for pensions and retiree health benefits. It passed 31-2 in the Senate and 63-12-1 in the Assembly.
Some lawmakers noted the state is at least asking permission from voters, unlike when it proceeded with $300 million to renovate the Statehouse.
“What’s important about this is that unlike the Statehouse renovation, this actually goes to the public to let them determine an up or down vote,” said Sen. Christopher “Kip” Bateman, R-Somerset.
“Imagine the novelty of actually asking the voters if we should borrow money. It’s an older process that most recently has not been engaged,” said Assemblyman John Burzichelli, D-Gloucester.
The deadline for getting a bond issue on the ballot is 10 weeks before the general election, or Aug. 29 this year. If Christie were to wait to sign the bill until after that date, the bond issue would go on the 2018 ballot.
The Assembly could compel Christie to sign or veto the bill by convening on or after Aug. 18. In an election year, lawmakers typically schedule few sessions between the end of June and the election.