New Jersey voters have approved more than $1 billion in new borrowing over the past decade to pay for things like open-space preservation and building upgrades at colleges and universities. This fall, their generosity will be put to the test once again with a ballot question that proposes issuing $125 million in debt to help fund library capital projects throughout the state.
The goal of putting the library bond issue before voters won widespread support from state lawmakers, and Gov. Chris Christie took action late last week to ensure it would go on the ballot in November, which is also when voters will be asked to choose the state’s next governor.
A number of groups are already backing the proposed general-obligation bond sale, including the New Jersey Library Association, which is expected in the coming weeks to start making its case directly to voters for why they should approve the new borrowing.
If the bond sale does win support at the ballot box this year, it would create the first significant pot of money for New Jersey library projects since lawmakers signed off on a $45 million grant program nearly 20 years ago.
Bond issues past
In all, New Jersey voters have been asked to weigh in on proposed state borrowing issues on three different occasions over the past 10 years, including in 2012, when they approved borrowing $750 million to pay for facility improvements at colleges and universities across the state. Lawmakers just signed off on the final batch of projects to be funded through that bond issue earlier this year.
Voters also approved bond issues totaling $200 million and $400 million in 2007 and 2009, respectively, to help raise funds for statewide land-preservation efforts. But in 2007, voters rejected a proposed bond issue that would have generated $450 million to pay for stem-cell medical research in New Jersey.
The legislation proposing that the state issue $125 million in bonds to raise new revenue for the “construction, expansion, and equipping of New Jersey’s public libraries” easily passed both houses of the Legislature in the final weeks before a new state budget was adopted in early July.
According to the bill, which Christie signed on Friday, the revenue from the bonds would fund 50 percent of a project’s cost, with the balance coming from either local or private sources. New Jersey’s state librarian would be directed to work with Thomas Edison College to draft eligibility requirements for the grant program, and to come up with a list of qualified projects.
Borrowing for libraries overdue?
According to the New Jersey Library Association, lawmakers last approved new borrowing for library facilities in 1999, a $45 million initiative that helped finance 68 projects throughout the state. But much has occurred since then, including a major recession and a shift toward new technologies like the Internet. A recent survey of public libraries in New Jersey revealed a need for technology updates, and more than 50 percent said they would need to expand facilities to keep up with demand.
A website launched by the library association offers additional information on the need for the bond sale, and the site also includes a list of dozens of local groups that have already signed up to support the proposed borrowing.
Patricia Tumulty, the library association’s executive director, said yesterday that the organization’s members are still celebrating Christie’s recent decision to allow the ballot issue to go before voters this fall. But she expects they will be meeting soon to discuss how they plan to make an appeal. Voter turnout typically picks up during years when the governor’s race is at the top of the ticket, so Tumulty said she’s expecting there will be a lot of interest in the library-bond question. “We think that it will bring statewide awareness, and that’s a good thing,” Tumulty said.
Right now, it’s unclear whether Democrat Phil Murphy or Republican Kim Guadagno will actively support or oppose the library bonds as they campaign for governor in the run-up to the November election. A spokesman for Murphy said yesterday that he has yet to take a position on the bond issue, and Guadagno’s spokesman said that while the goal of improving libraries is laudable, she has “significant concerns” about the state taking on new borrowing since New Jersey is already deep in debt.
The state’s heavy debt burden was also raised by lawmakers in an official opposition statement that was issued before the legislation won final approval last month. A fiscal estimate prepared earlier this month by the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services also indicated debt service could cost as much as $175 million as the bonds mature over the next 35 years, assuming interest rates between 4 percent and 6 percent.
But Sen. Christopher “Kip” Bateman, one of the legislative supporters of the bond issue, suggested the library projects that would be funded through the bonds could also offer an economic benefit to the state since libraries provide communities with access to career training and technology. The library association has also estimated the 1999 grant program generated $260 in economic activity, with small businesses picking up much of the work.
“I have no doubt that people will rise up to support their local library in November,” said Bateman (R-Somerset). “It’s the right thing to do.”