New Jersey voters might be asked whether the state should borrow $125 million to help finance a quarter-billion dollars a year in construction projects at public libraries.

The idea was advanced by an Assembly committee last month but still requires at least five more approvals before making the ballot, so it remains unclear if it might make this year’s ballot, next year’s or none at all.

Already the question doesn’t appear to have the same smooth sailing as a similar proposal did in 1999, when just two of 120 lawmakers voted against borrowing $45 million for library construction. Two of the first five lawmakers to vote on the plan gave it a thumbs-down, citing the state’s sizable debt.

Libraries have been reinventing themselves as community centers, said Patricia Tumulty, executive director of the New Jersey Library Association.

“You know, our libraries are no longer warehouses of books, but they’re now places that need vibrant computer centers. They help with job creation, teen centers and large community rooms,” Tumulty said. “Gone are the days when we just look at the libraries as rows and rows of books.”

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Tumulty said the libraries need the financial assistance. In a 2014 survey, her organization found 60 percent of libraries said they need more space, half need electrical upgrades and three-fourths need paint, carpeting or furnishings.

“Unfortunately with limited budgets, the ability to have capital funding is very limited in our communities,” Tumulty said.

Forty-five percent of the libraries that responded to the survey said they don’t meet the accessibility requirements of the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, which was adopted in 1990.

“It’s 2016, and we have buildings in New Jersey that do not meet ADA standards,” Tumulty said.

Assemblyman Jay Webber, R-Morris, said libraries are important but that the state shouldn’t be accumulating more debt on top of the more than $153 billion already owed -- $43 billion in bonds and more than $110 billion for other liabilities, mostly pensions and healthcare for retired public workers.

“That’s more than $52,000 for every man, woman and child in the state, the highest of any state in the union. We can’t afford more debt,” Webber said.

“I don’t think that it would be prudent for us to ask the taxpayers of the state of New Jersey to borrow another $125 million to add to that debt load,” Webber said.

The idea was proposed in 2014 by Assemblyman Wayne DeAngelo, D-Mercer, and currently has 14 primary sponsors and co-sponsors. Among them is Assemblyman Troy Singleton, D-Burlington, a board member for the Burlington County Library.

“I think for us to make this investment is truly an investment in the community in which they’re in because their mission has become so diverse,” Singleton said.

The state last borrowed money for library projects in 1999, when $45 million was approved. Local governments had to put up $3 for every $1 in state grant funds, so the money helped finance more than $200 million in construction at 68 libraries.

The current proposal calls for municipalities to provide a $1 match for every dollar the state provides.

New Jersey public libraries have the sixth-largest per capita operating revenues in the nation, behind only Ohio, Illinois, New York, Washington D.C. and Washington state. Most of the $55.39 per capita comes from local revenue, all but 46 cents.

There isn’t currently a Senate version of the bill, though one was introduced last year with six sponsors. That bill expired when the legislative session ended in January and hasn’t yet been reintroduced.

Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for NJ 101.5 and the author of New Jersey: Decoded. Follow @NJDecoded on Twitter and Facebook.

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