It’s been more than four years since voters authorized a major bond issue to help pay for new buildings and renovations at New Jersey colleges and universities. Now, lawmakers are taking steps to allocate $34 million, which represents the remaining dollars that have yet to be spent from that bond issue.
Committees in both the Assembly and Senate voted last week to approve a list of projects that will use up what remains of the $750 million “Building Our Future Bond Act” from 2012. Much of the money that has yet to be spent will go to two-year colleges to pay for new academic buildings, according to the list of projects — which won bipartisan support.
Sponsors of the legislation said their approval will finally close the books on a major investment in higher educational facilities that was the first to occur in New Jersey in the last quarter century. The spending of the remaining capital dollars also won support from groups representing New Jersey colleges and universities. And a key business lobbying group also praised the spending as necessary to help New Jersey remain competitive with colleges and universities in other states as it seeks to keep students in-state after they graduate high school.
In all, the Christie administration has estimated that the bond funding, combined with money available from other state programs, has supported 176 building projects at 46 colleges and universities across the state, paying for new research laboratories, classrooms, and other facilities.
The $750 million general-obligation bond issue went before voters in November 2012 after receiving bipartisan support from lawmakers, and the ballot question ended up winning more than 60 percent approval at the polls. But after the financing was approved, Gov. Chris Christie’s administration drew some criticism for not issuing all of the bonds right away and immediately spending the full amount of money that was approved by voters. Among the explanations offered by officials at the time was a concern about flooding the bond market with too many offerings.
Christie, while running for reelection in 2013, also heavily promoted the investment in higher educational facilities as an example of a bipartisan approach to governing even as many of the education facility projects remained unfunded, leading to suggestions that he was also politicizing the investment effort. But eventually the Christie administration did approve a series of funding rounds that used up most, but not all of, the funding that was authorized.
Major projects at two-year colleges that are now in line to receive funding include $5.8 million for a health-career center at Camden County College; $5.1 million for a health and life sciences building at Rowan College at Burlington County; $4.5 million for a college center at Rowan College at Gloucester County; $3.1 million for a new academic building at Sussex County Community College; and $1.2 million for a technology center at Passaic County Community College.
Among projects at four-year colleges that will receive funding is nearly $3 million to reconstruct academic buildings at William Paterson University and nearly $2 million to renovate the Edison Science Building at Monmouth University.
“It’s money well-spent as far as having up-to-date facilities and buildings, improvements to enhance our universities and colleges,” said Assemblyman Tom Giblin (D-Essex).
The $34.2 million in total spending was supported by representatives of the New Jersey Association of State Colleges and Universities, the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities in New Jersey, and the New Jersey Council of County Colleges.
Also supporting the spending was the New Jersey Business & Industry Association, a business lobbying group that has raised concerns in recent years about the state losing too many of its college students to other states. A NJBIA study of outmigration trends that was released last year showed a net loss of 57,566 New Jersey residents between the ages of 18 and 34 in the 2007 to 2014 period. The study also revealed millennials were leaving New Jersey at higher rates than any other age group.
Michele Siekerka, NJBIA’s president and chief executive officer, said New Jersey taxpayers are already making a huge investment in education at the K-12 level, so it makes sense to try to keep them in the state when they move on to college. Students often do not return to New Jersey after leaving the state for college and the loss of millennials is also suspected to have an impact on the state economy since they’re one of the most sought after groups by major companies when they look to expand.
“The higher-education bond-issue funds will enable our students to have the learning opportunities that are better than or equal to those offered by any other state,” Siekerka said. “We must reverse the trend where large numbers of our high school graduates attending college leave New Jersey to continue their education.”
The state’s last major investment in higher educational facilities came after voters approved an earlier bond issue in 1988.