Gov. Phil Murphy took his budget messaging to Passaic County Community College Wednesday. And he continued to chide the Legislature for rejecting his millionaires tax proposal. Whose side are they on, he keeps asking.
“So I know where I stand. But the Legislature stood on the side of New Jersey millionaires by protecting them from paying their fair share in this budget. Again, again, I repeat, I don’t begrudge success. They’ve done well, God bless them. They’ve earned it the right way, they deserve it. We’re only asking for us to re-level the playing field,” Murphy said.
The focus was on the governor’s free community college program. In fiscal year 2019, Murphy put $25 million into the program. For FY2020 he proposed $58.5 million. The Legislature cut that by $28.5 million, leaving $30 million for the program. Thousands of students whose families earn less than $45,000 a year will be competing for limited funds.
“I would much rather be a state that tells every student ‘you matter, you belong,’ than a state that leaves you on your own to protect a tax cut for millionaires,” Murphy said.
Murphy was defiant, even as he left the door open to signing a budget bill without the millionaires tax. “Regardless of where we come out over the next several days, I’m not going to let this go,” he said.
An array of people spoke up for the free community college program.
“This is a big deal. This is one of those life-changing things in New Jersey,” said Passaic County Community College president Steven Rose.
“When President Lyndon Baines Johnson championed the concept of community college, it was to make it affordable and accessible to everyone,” said Paterson Mayor Andre Sayegh.
Leen Abaza escaped the Syrian War, came here at 13, and is now a recipient of a Community College Opportunity Grant, or C-COG. “The C-COG program changed my life, and because of this grant I am now able to pursue my dream of becoming a biomedical engineer,” said Abaza.
Murphy was asked if he thinks the Legislature’s action in cutting the funding was punitive against him.
“I certainly hope not. Please God, I hope not,” he said.
Praising free community college, he said, “It is so wildly popular and changes so many lives; I am praying that folks wake up and understand that. I mean, this is stone-cold crazy stupid to not fund this program.”
If there is no signed budget by Sunday midnight, state government will shut down. Murphy said he’s dealing with legislators who are out of touch. “I am really struck by the gap, philosophically, between the 120 folks, and I don’t mean all… and the will of the people. I’ve never seen a gap like this,” he said.
The Senate Democratic Office replied Wednesday afternoon in a sharply worded, point-by-point rebuttal, saying: “To try to assert that the Senate has not prioritized higher education is a false claim that it not supported by the facts, figures, or reality. The Legislature’s budget gave the county colleges their top priority — an expansion of the Opportunity Grant program … We should remember that the Governor vetoed legislation that would have saved $22 million by having county colleges move their employees to the State Health Benefit Plan from the School Employee Benefit Plan.”
Free community college has been a signature issue of Murphy’s. In so many words, he has called what the Legislature is proposing to do with it the unkindest cut of all.