Getting A Read On $125 Million Library Bond Ballot Question

Advocates argue that Garden State libraries need to catch up on technologies like the Internet, but opponents claim the state is ‘already drowning in debt’

A proposed ballot question seeking voter authorization for the state to borrow $125 million to help fund capital projects at local libraries won overwhelming bipartisan support as it advanced through the Legislature. But the fate of the library-bond issue now lies squarely in the hands of just one person — Gov. Chris Christie.

Lawmakers gave final approval to the proposed ballot question last week, sending the legislation directly to Christie, a second-term Republican, for consideration. If he signs off, voters would be asked this fall to approve the proposed general-obligation bond issue.

Library advocates and sponsors of the ballot question note it’s been more than 15 years since lawmakers last approved borrowing for local library capital projects. Many branches are now desperate to make upgrades to keep up with rapidly changing technology, they say. But others have opposed the ballot question from the start, citing the state’s already heavy debt burden, among other factors.

Waiting for governor to weigh in

Christie has yet to weigh in publicly on the proposed library bonds, and his office declined to give any hints when asked for comment by NJ Spotlight last week. But that hasn’t kept sponsors from being optimistic that Christie will allow the debate over the proposed library bonds to be settled by voters in November.

“I’m hoping the governor is going to sign this,” said Sen. Christopher “Kip” Bateman (R-Somerset) in an interview with NJ Spotlight.

According to the New Jersey Library Association, which is supporting the proposed bond sale, lawmakers last approved new borrowing for library facilities in 1999, a $45 million bond act that helped finance 68 projects throughout the state and generated an estimated $260 million in economic activity in the process. But much has occurred since then, including a major recession and a shift toward new technologies like the Internet. A recent survey of public libraries in New Jersey revealed a need for technology updates, and found more than 50 percent said they would need to expand facilities to keep up with demand.

During testimony before the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee last week, Patricia Tumulty, the library association’s executive director, said the bond sale would raise funds that are “desperately needed.”

“If the voters say ‘yes,’ we can go forward and transform many of our libraries into the kind of community spaces they are meant to be,” she said.

Under the legislation, the proposed $125 million bond sale would raise revenue to provide grants for the “construction, expansion, and equipping of New Jersey’s public libraries.” New Jersey’s state librarian would be directed to work with Thomas Edison College to draft eligibility requirements for the grant program, and to also come up with a list of qualified projects. The revenue for the bond sale would fund 50 percent of a project’s cost, with the balance coming from either local or private sources.

July 4th legislation

The legislation was sent to Christie’s desk by the state Senate in the early morning of July 4th, passing by a 31-2 margin. But its advancement was overshadowed by a compromise hashed out by legislative leaders hours earlier to resolve differences on legislation involving Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield that was at the heart of last week’s three-day shutdown of state government.

Bateman, a primary sponsor of the Senate version of the bill, said libraries in New Jersey play a key role in many communities, with a recent study showing they serve over 44 million annual visitors across the state.

“Libraries are so important, not just for books, but they provide essential services,” Bateman said.

‘Drowning in debt’

But not everyone in the Legislature thinks issuing new debt is a good idea since New Jersey, with $43 billion in bonded obligations as of the latest official accounting, is already one of the most indebted states. After the library bonds were first proposed last year, Assemblymen Jay Webber and Michael Patrick Carroll, (both R-Morris), drafted a formal legislative statement that said taxpayers are “already drowning in debt.” Many libraries also benefit from a local tax that gleans 33 cents from every $1,000 of property value, they said.

“Despite that substantial existing funding of our public libraries and the mountain of debt our taxpayers already face, this bill calls for even more spending and borrowing for New Jersey’s public libraries,” the opposition statement said.

Asked to respond to the concerns about state debt, Bateman stressed that the library-bond legislation would ultimately be put before voters to allow them decide whether borrowing $125 million for library projects is a good idea.

“If the public turns it down, they turn it down,” he said.

Debt watchdog

And Bateman himself has a lengthy record of being a watchdog when it comes to state debt. That record includes sponsoring a 2008 constitutional amendment that made it harder for the state to issue debt without first getting approval from voters. Bateman was also one of the lawmakers who recently sued the Christie administration after it issued $300 million in bonds without legislative or voter approval to pay for a planned four-year renovation of the oldest sections of the State House in Trenton, including the part that houses the governor’s office. A judge ultimately ruled against Bateman and the other lawmakers.

“I think this is necessary, I really do,” he said, referring to the proposed library bonds.

Tumulty, the library association leader, also told lawmakers during the legislative hearing last week that, if approved, the bond issue could provide a jolt for the state economy. Due to the 50 percent local match, the bonds will generate a total of $250 million in spending.

“It’s going to create construction jobs, and also opportunities for small businesses who are going to work with libraries for things like floorings, rugs, computers, and technology,” she said.

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