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Lawmakers Want Voters to Approve $1B Bond Issue for School Safety and Vo-Techs

Original bond was for $500M to upgrade NJ’s vocational-technical and community colleges, but legislators want to double it to improve school security

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State lawmakers have supersized a planned bond issue that’s on track to go before New Jersey voters this fall, turning a proposed $500 million debt sale for facility upgrades at vocational-technical high schools and community colleges into a $1 billion issue that would also raise money for school security improvements.

The decision to add $500 million to the general-obligation bond sale to pay for security upgrades at K-12 schools comes in the wake of the devastating school shooting in Florida earlier this year, an event that led New Jersey lawmakers to organize a series of hearings in recent weeks on the issue of school security.

Sponsors pointed directly to the Florida school shooting after they announced on the floor of the Senate yesterday that they were increasing the size, and also widening the scope of, the proposed career-technical facility bond issue, which had already been cleared by a legislative committee last month.

“Nothing is more important than the safety of our schoolchildren,” said Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester).

Will governor’s tax hikes affect the vote?

New Jersey voters have proven generous in recent years when it comes to approving debt issues, but this year could be different with the $1 billion bond sale being put forward as Gov. Phil Murphy is separately calling for roughly $1.7 billion in tax hikes as part of his budget proposal for the 2019 fiscal year. Another bill that’s on the governor’s desk calls for ratepayers across the state to pick up the tab for an up to $300 million annual subsidy for the state’s nuclear plants. And New Jersey is already one of the nation’s most indebted states, with $46 billion in bonded debt, a sum that outpaces the current state budget by more than $10 billion.

While the bigger bond issue easily cleared the Senate by a 36-1 margin, it still must win approval from the Assembly and Murphy before it can get on the ballot this fall.

The issue of gun violence has come front and center again in the wake of the February shooting deaths of 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. The massacre sparked thousands of Garden State students to join a national movement to walk out of class last month, and it also triggered a youth-led March for Our Lives, which involved protests across the country, including in cities and towns around New Jersey.

In addition to advancing several new bills aimed at curbing gun violence, New Jersey lawmakers have also organized a series of hearings on the issue of school security, with the latest held in Cherry Hill earlier this week. While the gun legislation has been passed along party lines, the proposal to raise $500 million by issuing new debt for school security upgrades is a bipartisan effort, led on the GOP side by Sen. Tony Bucco (R-Morris).

Strong Republican support

In fact, Sweeney credited Bucco for pushing to increase what initially was a $250 million add-on for school security up to $500 million. The amended bill calls for the commissioner of the state Department of Education to develop procedures and criteria for the school security grants, and schools would not be required to provide matching funds.

“Creating comprehensive school security programs is one of the most critical ways we can safeguard our students, our teachers, and our communities from outside threats,” Bucco said.

Meanwhile, the rationale for the $500 million in funds for the career-technical training facility upgrades comes in the wake of hearings that have been held in recent months by the Legislature’s bipartisan manufacturing caucus.

One of the key issues that came up repeatedly during the caucus hearings was how economic growth in New Jersey is being held back because many companies simply can’t find enough employees with the right technical skills to fill their job openings, even as the demand for vocational-technical education is surging in New Jersey. In addition, officials from the New Jersey Council of County Vocational-Technical Schools who testified during hearings said more than 30,000 students across the state filed applications last year to attend one of the county vo-tech high schools. But only a little more than 12,000 students statewide were accepted, primarily due to space constraints.

Under the proposed bond issue, a total of $450 million would be raised specifically for the vocational-technical schools by issuing long-term debt that would be paid off by state taxpayers. Another $50 million would be raised to fund program expansions at county colleges.

Expanding vo-techs to tackle worker shortage

“This bond issue is an investment in our future,” Sweeney said. “This skilled worker shortage is one of the most critical factors stunting our state’s economic growth, and we need to address it.”

Last year, New Jersey voters approved $125 million in new borrowing to fund library capital projects throughout the state, which was the first new debt approved for libraries since 1999. In 2012, voters authorized the sale of $750 million in new debt to help fund improvements at colleges and universities throughout the state.

But at $1 billion, this year’s proposed bond issue outstrips both of those earlier debt sales, and at a time when New Jersey voters are facing the higher tax bills that Murphy put on the table in his budget plan last month. They include the restoration of a 7 percent general sales-tax rate, and the establishment of a 10.75 percent income-tax rate levied on earnings over $1 million.

Asked if he was concerned about voters being turned off this year by the $1 billion figure that’s now attached to the proposed bond issue, Sweeney pointed to the areas where the money from the new borrowing would be spent and the proposal’s bipartisan backing.

“Making sure kids are safe, and that kids are getting job training, I think they are priorities for both sides,” he said.

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