School Funding Discord Pits Murphy Against Sweeney — Again

John Mooney | January 14, 2020 | Education
Governor vetoes Senate president’s bill, which would allow districts to raise property taxes to make up for money lost under new school-funding law
Credit: NJTV News
Gov. Phil Murphy, left, and Senate President Steve Sweeney

Two years ago, the agreement on school funding that Gov. Phil Murphy and Senate President Steve Sweeney cobbled together was born out of the need to avoid a protracted government shutdown.

Yesterday, that accord appeared to break down when Murphy vetoed a measure pushed by Sweeney that would ease some of the worst pains of the new funding agreement.

It didn’t go over well on either side, and how lasting the rift will be and how much it will affect the coming state budget are yet to be seen.

On effectively the last day of the legislative session, Murphy announced in the midst of dozens of bill signings that he would veto Sweeney’s bill that would have allowed about 40 districts hit hardest by funding cuts to tap into their local property taxes to make up the difference.

Sweeney put forward the bill — and got it passed by a narrow margin — aiming to quell the critics of his school-funding deal with Murphy, which targets fully funding the state’s school finance formula within five years.

Sidestepping state property-tax cap

Specifically, Sweeney’s measure would have allowed a handful of districts facing cuts — including Toms River, Freehold Regional and Brick — to waive the state’s current 2% cap on property taxes. Instead, they would be allowed to raise taxes until they offset the reduction in state aid.

But Murphy pushed back almost immediately, saying it would put the onus on local taxpayers when he is again pushing an increased tax on millionaires. It’s been a familiar refrain in Murphy’s two years on office, and the governor kept to that message yesterday in his veto letter.

“Before middle-class property taxpayers have to again take it on the chin, we should be asking our wealthiest residents to pay their fair share through a millionaire’s tax,” Murphy said in the announcement of the veto.

And that’s when the war of words began. Predictably, Sweeney objected and said the governor’s veto was the “height of hypocrisy.” Less expected, the state’s school boards association delivered a rare rebuke to the governor as well, along with a coalition of more than 100 districts relying on the state’s current funding path to rebuild their budgets.

Taking exception to the governor

“We strongly disagree with the governor’s interpretation of the proposal and its impact on local property taxpayers,” said Lawrence Feinsod, the school boards association’s executive director. “[The bill] was well-thought-out legislation that would have enabled school districts to maintain educational programming. It would not have resulted in wide-scale, unbridled property tax increases as inferred by the governor.”

Feinsod went on to say that the governor’s linking of the cap waiver with the millionaires tax was misguided.

“A millionaires tax and a property-tax cap adjustment are completely unrelated,” he continued. “Under the state school-funding law, any additional revenue generated by a millionaires tax could not be used to provide additional funds to districts that will be losing school aid.”

Nonetheless, Murphy gets the last word, at least for now. The Sweeney bill passed in the Senate and Assembly by slim margins, making an override with the required two-thirds majorities almost unthinkable at this point.

Next up is the governor’s presentation in late February or March of his state budget for fiscal 2021, in which state aid to schools is sure to take center stage. Sweeney appears unlikely to give up entirely on his proposal, and there will be several months of budget deliberations.

Yesterday, the Senate president raised his own rallying cry in defending the mostly suburban districts facing cuts and, in turn, pitting them against some of the state’s neediest districts, many of which stand to gain.

“The governor owes parents and schoolchildren in Toms River, Old Bridge, Hillsborough, South Brunswick and Brick an explanation of why he thinks the adequacy of their education is less important than those of children in cities like Newark and Trenton,” Sweeney said.