By James Nash
New Jersey voters have shown a willingness to take on debt for public purposes, authorizing nearly $1.5 billion in bonds since 2007 to preserve farms and historic sites and to build schools and libraries.
On Nov. 6, their capacity for borrowing money will be tested again, with a $500 million ballot measure that would beef up career and technical education and improve water systems in schools.
The only ballot question during the midterm elections is broadly supported by state politicians of both parties as well as business organizations including the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce. They say it would create new opportunities for young people.
“We all recognize that New Jersey’s workforce is one our state’s greatest economic assets and that we need to do all we can to ensure that our students represent the best trained and most highly qualified workforce possible,” chamber President Tom Bracken said in a statement.
The largest share of the bond proceeds, $350 million, would go toward grants for career and technical education in K-12 schools as well as security improvements. Another $100 million would go toward school water projects, and $50 million would be designated for college career and technical education grants.
Officials from the New Jersey Council of County Vocational-Technical Schools say the existing schools can’t meet the demand for career education for young people seeking alternatives to college. Last year, county vocational-technical schools had to turn away almost 17,000 applicants due to a lack of space, according to the council.
The $500 million bond measure would be the largest amount of debt approved by New Jersey voters since 2012. Even so, the amount is just half of what lawmakers approved before Gov. Phil Murphy issued a conditional veto of their bill in August. In his veto message, the Democratic governor noted that interest and other debt-service costs could eclipse $2 billion on the $1 billion in principal.
New Jersey already is among the most indebted states, with more than $46 billion in outstanding bonded debt, according to a report from the state treasurer earlier this year. That amount was up 7.6 percent from a year earlier. The state already spends more than $4 billion a year paying down its debt, amounting to about 10 percent of expenditures from its general fund. Although the measure would not automatically raise taxes, it contains a provision that would boost property taxes if the state is unable to afford its debt payments.
Still, both Democratic and Republican legislative leaders put their support behind the latest bond measure, calling it a needed investment in New Jersey’s future.
“It will provide students with job skills for the modern workforce, improve their safety and security in schoolrooms, and protect their health and well-being by ensuring clean water,” Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-Gloucester, said in a statement.
“Our county vocational schools are currently unable to meet the needs of students and employers alike,” said Sen. Steve Oroho, R-Sussex, said in statement.
Conservative blogger Matt Rooney urged a “no” vote on the ballot measure, noting that even Murphy expressed concern about New Jersey’s debt burden. The bond measure would not result in any immediate tax increases, but taxpayers ultimately are responsible for paying the state’s debts.
“Even if the money WAS lying around somewhere in the State House, it doesn’t really matter how wonderful our on-ramps and vo-tech water fountains look if no one can afford to live here, and our tax load is already getting us to the ‘no one can afford to live here’ fork in the road,” Rooney wrote on his Save Jersey website.
Since 2007, New Jersey voters have approved four statewide bond measures and rejected one, a $450 million issue for stem-cell and other biomedical research that got 47 percent of the vote in November 2007.