Lawmakers Want to Borrow $1B for Education Items but Leave Voters with Final Say

Bipartisan support to ask voters for massive bond. The money would go to school security, technical training, and cleaning up school water. Will governor sign on?

A proposed $1 billion bond question on the November ballot to fund a range of education-facility upgrades won overwhelming bipartisan support as it moved through the Legislature in recent weeks. Now, Gov. Phil Murphy must decide whether New Jersey voters should have the final say this fall.

Under legislation sent to Murphy last week, the state would issue long-term general-obligation bonds to raise money for improving security at K-12 school districts, expanding vocational-technical training facilities, and upgrading school drinking-water infrastructure.

Sponsors and other advocates of the bond issue have been pointing to the need to harden educational facilities in the wake of recent mass shootings inside schools in other states and to help New Jersey’s vocational-technical high schools keep up with the increasing demand for a career-focused technical education.

But at a cost of $1 billion, the proposed new borrowing will likely test voters’ willingness to add to the state’s credit-card bill as New Jersey already ranks among the most indebted states in the U.S.

School metal detector
For his part, Murphy, a first-term Democrat, has spoken in favor of expanding vocational-technical facilities, suggesting it would complement his own efforts to beef up a part of the state economy that relies heavily on those with technical-skill certifications instead of college degrees. But that was before lawmakers significantly added to an original, $500 million borrowing proposal by inserting the school-security and school-water language, doubling the size of the proposed borrowing to $1 billion.

It started out as borrowing for vo-techs

According to the final version of the legislation that both the Assembly and Senate passed, the new bond issue would raise $450 million for school security upgrades; $400 million to expand vocational-technical high schools; $100 million for school water-system improvements; and $50 million to expand county college technical-training facilities.

The original proposal for the bond issue came out of a yearlong review of state policies related to the manufacturing industry, which lawmakers are trying to revive as a leading sector of New Jersey’s economy. During a series of hearings, legislators heard from industry leaders who said they have a number of job openings, but not enough qualified applicants to fill them. And officials from the New Jersey Council of County Vocational-Technical Schools testified that more than 30,000 students filed applications last year to attend a vocational-technical high school, but only a little more than 12,000 students statewide were accepted, primarily due to space constraints.

“The overwhelming demand for these programs proves that many employers are actively looking for job candidates with technical training,” said Sen. Steve Oroho (R-Sussex), a primary sponsor of the proposed bond issue. “With proper funding, I am confident that our county vo-tech schools will continue to create pathways to long-term employment for countless New Jersey residents,” said Oroho, who is one of the members of the legislative-manufacturing caucus.

The $450 million for school-security upgrades was added to the proposed bond issue in April, several weeks after a mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida left 17 people dead. The massacre sparked thousands of Garden State students to walk out of class to demand more action by lawmakers to protect them. It also prompted the New Jersey Legislature to hold hearings on how to improve school security, including with facility upgrades.

Trying to clean up lead

water fountain
“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,” said Sen. Tony Bucco (R-Morris), another primary sponsor of the legislation.

Meanwhile, the decision by lawmakers to add language to raise money to improve school drinking-water infrastructure comes as many communities in New Jersey have been struggling to address concerns about aging pipes and increased lead levels in school-district facilities.

Last year, New Jersey voters had no problem approving $125 million in new borrowing to fund library capital projects throughout the state. It was just the latest state bond issue to get support at the ballot box, as voters in 2012 also authorized $750 million in new debt to help fund improvements at colleges and universities throughout the state.

But at $1 billion, this year’s proposed borrowing issue is worth more than the last two combined. It would also go before voters after the most recent official state-debt report from the state Department of Treasury indicated New Jersey is now carrying a total of $46.1 billion in bonded debt, easily outpacing the size of the current, $37.4 billion annual budget.

Sen. Michael Doherty’s was sole ‘nay’ vote

More recent borrowing issues that did not require voter approval — including for an ongoing renovation of the State House in Trenton — have also helped New Jersey maintain its standing as one of the nation’s most-indebted states, ranking fourth highest in the categories of net tax-supported debt and per-capita debt, according to Treasury’s report.

A fiscal estimate prepared by the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services also projected annual borrowing costs for a $1 billion bond issue could total between $57 million and $72 million, based on current interest rates and market conditions.

Sponsors of the proposed bond issue — which only one member of the 120-seat Legislature, Republican Sen. Michael Doherty, voted against — have responded to questions about the state’s already high debt burden by saying the ballot question would ultimately leave it up to voters to determine whether the state should take on the additional borrowing.

But to get on the ballot in its current form this November, the bill needs a final sign-off from Murphy. The governor has generally declined comment on pending legislation since taking office earlier this year, and his press aides did not respond when asked for his position on the proposed bond issue last week.