Voters to decide if NJ should borrow $500M for schools
In addition to helping determine control of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, voters across New Jersey next week will decide whether the state should borrow $500 million to fund school construction projects.
The types of projects that would be funded are specified, though the recipients are not. It would provide $350 million for county vocational schools and school security, $50 million for county colleges and $100 million for school district water infrastructure improvement projects.
For the vo-tech and county college projects, the state would provide 75 percent of the funding, with the counties providing a 25 percent match.
Legislative leaders say the intention is to help the economy by providing a better-prepared workforce for the types of jobs employers, in particular manufacturers, have a hard time filling.
“I can tell you as an ironworker, a union ironworker, it’s OK to be a union ironworker, welder, plumber, electrician, carpenter – they make pretty good careers. They make pretty good livelihoods,” said Senate President Steve Sweeney, D-Gloucester.
Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, D-Middlesex, said New Jersey’s future economy will depend in part on skilled technical jobs in clean energy alternatives such as wind and solar.
“These are going to be real career jobs. These are not just part-time jobs or jobs that people won’t hold onto for a long time,” Coughlin said.
There aren’t organized campaigns for and against the ballot question, but the idea seems to have widespread support.
The bill, S2293, was passed by the Senate three times, which was necessary to concur with changes made by the Senate and Murphy, by votes of 36-1, 37-1 and 31-0. Only Sen. Michael Doherty, R-Warren, voted against it.
It passed the Assembly twice, by votes of 76-0 and 65-0.
“There’s nothing more important than the security of our children,” said state Sen. Steve Oroho, R-Sussex. “There’s nothing more important than making sure that they’re not drinking water with lead in it.”
“Our community colleges, our vo-tech schools, our two-year programs, our certificate programs – these are the paths where a four-year college is not always,” said state Sen. Vin Gopal, D-Monmouth, who heads the Legislative Manufacturing Caucus.
The proposal started at $500 million, with $450 million going to county vocational school districts and $50 million going to county colleges.
It was soon increased to $750 million, with the additional $250 million allocated to school facility security projects in K-12 schools.
It was then boosted to $1 billion, with the amount for school security projects increased to $500 million.
The distribution was then changed to include $100 million for school district water infrastructure improvement projects by trimming $50 million each from the amounts for county vo-techs, lowering it to $400 million, and school facility security, making that $450 million.
In late August, Gov. Phil Murphy vetoed the bill and reduced it in half – back to its original size of $500 million, though with a different distribution.
“I applaud the Legislature for identifying these critically important priorities. There are few things as crucial to the strength and vitality of our great state as developing a skilled, well-trained workforce and protecting the health and safety of our school children,” Murphy wrote in his veto message.
“While I certainly endorse the priorities established in this bill, I also believe that their long term fiscal implications must be carefully considered,” he wrote. “New Jersey already ranks in the top five states in the nation for tax supported debt.”
The state’s general obligation and contract bonds exceed $33 billion. The state also faces more than $142 billion in long-term pension liabilities and $80 billion in unfunded, post-retirement medical liabilities.
A fiscal estimate of the $500 million bond proposal wasn’t released publicly by the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services. But if the OLS estimates for the $1 billion proposal that was studied are cut in half, the costs could range from $28 million to $36 million a year and eventually total $863 million to $1.084 billion over 30 years, depending on the interest rate for the borrowing.
The Legislature’s concurred with Murphy’s changes the same day the veto was issued, so it could be signed in time to be on next week’s ballot.