Getting Ballot Question On The Books For $125M Bond Sale For Local Libraries

If the lawmakers, governor, and residents go for it, bonds would fund matching grants to help libraries with capital projects.

Nearly $36 billion in new spending is already on the agenda in Trenton this week as a deadline for the next state budget is just days away, but advocates for New Jersey’s local libraries are hoping lawmakers can also find time to advance a ballot question for a proposed bond sale to raise $125 million for library capital projects.

The proposed general-obligation bond issue — which has largely flown under the radar in Trenton in recent weeks amid ongoing budget talks — would be the first to be floated solely to benefit local library facilities in New Jersey in the past 15 years.

Under the measure seeking the referendum, the $125 million to be raised through the proposed bond sale would be used to fund dollar-for-dollar matching grants to local communities seeking to build or expand library facilities, helping them keep up with demand and changing technologies. Another $5,000 would be appropriated to cover costs associated with putting the ballot question before voters in November.

Supporters say the bond sale could raise much-needed funds for local library projects while also supporting construction work that could help jolt a state economy still recovering at a slow pace from the Great Recession. But the new borrowing has also been questioned by two Republican lawmakers who say the state is already deep in debt, and that many local libraries already have dedicated revenue streams to help support their operations and facilities.

July 1 budget deadline

Yet before the issue can go before voters this November, the proposed bond sale first needs approval from both houses of the Legislature, and from Gov. Chris Christie. So far, only the Assembly has signed off, even though the legislation has widespread, bipartisan support. And complicating matters for lawmakers this week is the ongoing budget stalemate involving Christie, a second-term Republican, and Democrats who control the Legislature, an impasse that is unfolding even as they face a July 1 deadline that’s set in the state constitution for a new budget to be in place.

The respective budget committees in both the Assembly and the Senate are scheduled to vote today on a budget bill, but Democratic leaders remain at odds with Christie over his insistence that legislation garnishing $300 million in surplus from Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield, New Jersey’s largest health insurer, be passed along with the budget to help fund state anti-addiction programs. Christie has also yet to sign off on a Democratic proposal to make modest revisions to the way the state distributes roughly $8 billion in aid to local school districts.

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 to finance 68 projects throughout the state. 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 also revealed a need for technology updates, and more than 50 percent said they would also need to expand facilities to keep up with demand.

“We are not just warehousing books right now,” said Patricia Tumulty, the library association’s executive director.

“The public library is the most utilized building in the community,” she went on to say.

Bipartisan backing

The proposed $125 million bond sale would raise revenue to provide grants for the “construction, expansion, and equipping of New Jersey’s public libraries,” according to the bill, which has drawn a number of sponsors from both political parties in both the Assembly and Senate.

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 eventually 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 local sources.

“Libraries have helped to bridge the digital divide by providing patrons with access to computers and the Internet, while continuing to provide a wide range of critical services. However, budgetary restrictions continue to threaten their existence,” said Assemblyman Jamel Holley (D-Union).

“This is one way to give libraries the financial resources they need to thrive and continue to serve their communities,” said Holley, one of the bill’s primary sponsors.

‘Drowning in debt’

But not everyone in the Legislature thinks issuing new debt is a good idea. 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.

If the bill seeking to put the ballot question before voters this fall wins final approval from lawmakers this week, it will still need Christie’s signature, and it’s not clear right now which way the governor will go. Though he’s slowed the rate of growth in state borrowing during his tenure, Christie this year has also drawn criticism — and an unsuccessful lawsuit — for using the state Economic Development Authority to issue $300 million in bonds to pay for a major renovation of the State House in Trenton without direct approval from lawmakers and voters.

But unlike that bond issue, the proposed library facility bonds would be issued directly by the state as general-obligation bonds, meaning they would be backed by the full faith and credit of the state and its taxpayers. By contrast, debt payments on bonds issued by agencies like the EDA are subject to appropriation by the Legislature and the governor each year, making them riskier for investors — and typically costlier for taxpayers who foot the interest payments.

Tumulty, the library association leader, said revenue from the library bonds also has the potential to generate economic development since they would fund construction and renovation projects throughout the state. Roughly $260 million in economic activity was generated by the last library bond issue 15 years ago, with local painters and other small businesses doing much of the work, she said.

“There is an economic impact to this bill,” she said.

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