Murphy drills down on Legislature’s cut to free community college program

Gov. Phil Murphy took his budget messaging to Passaic County Community College Wednesday. He continues to chide the Legislature for rejecting his millionaire’s 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 Thursday was on Murphy’s free community college program.

In FY 2019 Murphy put $25 million into it. For FY 2020 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 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.

And he praised free community college.

“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,” Murphy said.

If there’s no signed budget by Sunday midnight, state government will shut down. Murphy says 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 120 Mila, what goes on down the street from me and the will of the people. I’ve never seen a gap like this,” Murphy 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 programs. […] 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.

Senate President Steve Sweeney released a statement late Wednesday afternoon saying in part that Murphy is “starting to resemble Donald Trump in bombast, inconsistency and unreliability. I cannot, in good conscience, allow him to go unchallenged.”

“The reality is, Phil Murphy has no real agenda, no realistic plans to fix what is wrong in New Jersey, and no idea how to address the property tax crisis, the state’s most demanding problem. And, when it comes to choosing sides, Governor Murphy is more beholden to selfish, special-interests groups such as the leadership of the NJEA and CWA than to everyday working people,” added Sweeney.