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Op-Ed: Will Taxpayers Fund Higher Education to Reinvent NJ's Future?

A big-ticket bond issue is on the November ballot, does it hold the key to the state's prosperity?

In any discussion concerning state efforts to create, maintain, and enhance economic competitiveness, talk turns inevitably to the need for a higher education system capable of consistently producing a skilled workforce to attract the attention of corporate decision-makers considering locating a new business or expanding existing operations here.

The issue is especially acute in New Jersey, which has seen its manufacturing base shrink steadily as firms left for a more favorable tax and regulatory climate. The jobs they provided, long a staple of the state’s economic vitality, disappeared and were never replaced.

Bruce Springsteen, in his hard-times dirge, “My Hometown” sings of a plant foreman telling his men, “Boys, these jobs are goin’ south and they ain’t comin’ back.”

While many of the jobs did, indeed, “go south,” many went overseas, as outsourcing became commonplace to take advantage of vastly lower labor costs. No matter where they went, though, the result was the same --unemployment, disrupted lives, and communities hurt by the loss of tax ratables.

While adjusting to the new economic reality requires action on a broad front, an essential component must be providing colleges and universities with the support necessary to offer high-tech research and academic facilities to turn out students with the most advanced knowledge and understanding to compete in a global economy, and appeal to the best and brightest from beyond the state’s borders.

With near unanimous support and backing from Gov. Chris Christie, the Legislature approved and placed on the November ballot a referendum seeking approval of a $750 million bond issue to finance capital investment in higher education.

Proponents point out that the last large-scale capital investment in higher education occurred in 1987 and that New Jersey is one of only five states to have spent no money on capital improvements in the last five years.

Without such investment, they contend, New Jersey risks falling behind neighboring states, such as New York and Connecticut, which have allocated hundreds of millions of dollars a year on higher education facilities.

The stakes are exceedingly high, they say, nothing less than the state’s viability and the opportunity to replace jobs lost in the ongoing shift from a manufacturing to a complex technological economy. Failure to prepare will consign the state to second place or worse status because its workforce is not equipped to succeed in a global economic environment.

Assuming additional debt at a time of economic downturn and slow recovery is of concern to many who argue that, while investment in higher education is a worthwhile endeavor, the state’s bonded indebtedness already weighs heavily on the budget and taking on a further burden is unwise.

Supporters of the bond act confront the difficult task of convincing voters that investing now will reap enormous dividends in the longer term by attracting private sector innovation, development, and entrepreneurial venture capital.

Taxpayer-funded investments have always met with skepticism, primarily because they do not produce the instant gratification many people expect from major government-spending programs.

Supporters emphasize that bond issue was enacted with but two dissenting votes and enjoys support from both business and organized labor.

The Legislature limited spending to academic and research facilities, excluding its use for personnel or athletic buildings, and required those who receive the funds to provide a 25 percent match, effectively increasing the total to $1 billion.

Backers say the program will benefit 49 higher education institutions, including $150 million for community colleges, $300 million for large public research universities, $250 million for state colleges, and $50 million for private institutions, excepting Princeton University.

There are related benefits as well, they argue, not the least of which is the creation of nearly 10,000 jobs with a payroll of more than a half billion dollars.

Still, though, the mountain to scale to achieve taxpayer approval remains steep. The public mood runs more toward reducing government spending rather than increasing it, especially in light of the recent stream of dismal economic news.

It is against this background that taxpayers are being asked to support a significant expenditure to ensure that the state’s higher education system can position itself and the students it serves ahead of the curve in a world of mind-boggling rapid technological advancement.

When the last large-scale investment in higher education was made 25 years ago, the idea of walking around with a computer in one’s shirt pocket was patently absurd. And no one at that time could foresee hundreds of millions of everyday Americans owning devices preceded by a lower case i, followed by pod, pad, or phone.

Supporters of the bond issue are hoping voters will keep that in mind on November 6.

Carl Golden is a senior contributing analyst with the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey.

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