A group of lawmakers that includes key leaders from both parties is making it a priority to protect — and possibly even increase — funding for the state’s Educational Opportunity Fund.
What makes this effort noteworthy is that it comes in the wake of an unexpected revenue shortfall that is forcing legislators to consider making spending cuts to other worthy programs as they get ready to approve a new budget by the end of June.
The Educational Opportunity Fund provides both personal support and financial aid to thousands of low-income students entering college throughout New Jersey.
Gov. Chris Christie will have the final say, but those who are pushing to boost aid for EOF have good reason for hope. When a new budget came together last year, Christie agreed to keep in place an increase in EOF funding that was inserted by lawmakers even as he trimmed more than $1 billion from other programs at the last minute.
Now they’re now hoping for a similar outcome as budget negotiations — and outright horse-trading — will play out over the next several weeks leading up to a June 30 deadline for a new budget.
First funded in 1968 under former Gov. Richard Hughes, the EOF currently provides more than 17,000 students with both counseling and scholarships, typically starting before the students even enroll. Its success stories reach across the state, including in the Legislature itself, with several lawmakers among those to successfully complete the program and graduate college.
Sen. Nellie Pou (D-Passaic) spoke about her own experience with the program during a recent event in the State House that drew students, counselors, and lawmakers in a call for more funding.
“EOF is a very important component (of the budget), not only for me personally, but for the entire state of New Jersey,” Pou said.
“I know that my family could not afford to send me to college,” she said. “I cannot tell you how important it is for us to continue this fight.”
The current version of the EOF program provides qualified students with grants ranging from $200 to $2,500 each year, depending on economic need and type of institution they’re attending. And more than 40 different schools, ranging from community colleges to public and private universities, currently participate in the EOF program, according to the Office of the Secretary of Higher Education.
Carina Olivas, a first-year EOF student at Rowan University who is originally from Camden, credited the program’s counselors with helping her through a difficult transition from high school to college. But now she’s landed on Rowan’s Dean’s List, Olivas said.
“EOF is not just Education Opportunity Fund, it’s also known as ‘Extension Of Family’,” she said. “This is the best thing that has ever happened to me.”
Yet in an era of tight state budgets and structural deficits, items as small as the fund’s $41.4 million allocation are put in the crosshairs each year as Christie and the Democrats who control the Legislature try to come up with a balanced spending plan, which is something the state constitution requires.
Last year, Democratic lawmakers successfully fought to boost EOF funding by $1.6 million, with the increase surviving a number of other cuts that Christie made to the budget bill lawmakers sent the governor. But the baseline budget that Christie proposed this year in February for the fiscal year that begins July 1 reversed that change, reducing the allocation back down to $38.8 million.
The reduction follows an overall approach to the budget that Christie has adopted while dealing with Democratic legislative leaders since he took office in early 2010. In the past, items as small as a $1 million allocation for cancer research have become the subject of annual budget negotiations between the governor and the legislative leaders.
So the fight to restore the EOF funding level back to $41.4 million has been relaunched this year. And though the difference may seem to be just a small percentage of an overall budget that’s expected to total more than $34 billion this year, the proposed increase would allow for an estimated 200 to 225 additional EOF grants in the new fiscal year.
“Education is a critical tool to lift yourself out of poverty,” said Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester). “We believe in EOF funding. We always have.”
This year, Democratic legislative leaders also have new allies, with Republicans in the Senate joining the latest push for an EOF increase. And the GOP’s senators are also seeking to one-up their Democratic colleagues.
Republicans are planning to sponsor a budget resolution to push the EOF line-item up to $42.4 million, $1 million higher than last year’s total, said Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr. (R-Union).
“For the aspiring young students who aren’t sure how they’ll afford tuition or succeed in a college environment, the EOF represents a critical support structure,” Kean Jr. said. “Our funding proposal will ensure that the EOF can continue to serve those who need it.”
Still, it’s Christie who will have the final say because New Jersey’s constitution gives the governor broad powers when it comes to setting the annual budget.
While lawmakers have the authority to appropriate, it’s the governor who determines exactly how much will be available to spend each year. The governor also has the power to veto specific spending items out of the annual appropriations bill. For example, Christie at the last minute last year eliminated $1.6 billion in spending that was approved by lawmakers.
And earlier this month, after Christie’s administration announced a $600 million revenue shortfall for the current fiscal year, about $400 million was also shaved from the forecast for the 2017 fiscal year.
That reduction will force cuts to the planned allocations for more than a dozen programs, like charity-care services in hospitals. Christie is also proposing an additional raid on the state’s Clean Energy Fund to keep the 2017 fiscal budget balanced, which would push total diversions from that fund during Christie’s tenure to well over $1 billion.
But even after the $1.6 billion in cuts were made by the governor last year, the increase for the EOF program sought by lawmakers survived his veto pen. And when asked for comment last week on the new bipartisan push to again increase the EOF allocation, Christie spokesman Brian Murray didn’t dismiss outright the suggestion that the line item could ultimately end up higher.
“We’ll let the budget process follow its due course,” Murray said.