Murphy, Lawmakers Agree To Reduce Bond Referendum For School Improvements To $500 Million

Murphy said that New Jersey already carries over $33 billion in total debt and the state’s annual debt service now exceeds over $4.1 billion. He said the original bond measure would have likely added between $1.72 billion and $2.17 billion to that annual total.

TRENTON — New Jersey voters will get to decide a bond referendum this fall to raise money for school security improvements, vocational schools expansion and lead remediation, but it will be a lot smaller than the $1 billion lawmakers initially were seeking.

Both the Senate and Assembly approved halving the bond measure to $500 million after Gov. Phil Murphy conditionally vetoed the original bill due to his concerns the original bill would add too much to the state’s mounting debt load.

In his conditional veto message, the governor noted that New Jersey already carries over $33 billion in total debt and the state’s annual debt service now exceeds over $4.1 billion. He said the original bond measure would have likely added between $1.72 billion and $2.17 billion to that annual total.

“While I certainly endorse the priorities established in this bill, I also believe that their long term fiscal implications must be carefully considered,” Murphy wrote in his message, which was delivered on the final day before the deadline for referendums to be approved for placement on the November election ballot.

Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-3rd of West Deptford, said the governor had time to communicate his desire for changes but waited until the last minute. The legislature was sent to Murphy’s desk on July 1.

“I’m not overjoyed with this,” Sweeney said. “Even though the governor reduced the amount, we felt we were right ... but we need to move forward.”

The reduction in the total bond measure leaves substantially less for school security improvements and vocational school improvements. The original bill, known as the Securing Our Children’s Future Bond Act, specified that $450 million would be reserved for school security grants to fund improvements in school buildings and $400 million would be earmarked for county vocational school districts to expand their programs and capacity.

Another $50 million would go to county colleges for their career and technical education programs and $100 million would be reserved for water infrastructure projects in school buildings intended to protect students from lead.

Under the revised $500 million measure, voters will be asked to approve $350 million for both school security and vocational school expansion, as well as $50 million for county colleges and $100 million for water projects.

The new bill does not specify how exactly the $350 million for security and vocational expansion will be divided.

The changes drew the ire of Republican Sens. Anthony Bucco and Steve Oroho, who both co-sponsored the bipartisan legislation with Sweeney and Democrats such as Assemblywoman Pam Lampitt, D-6th of Cherry Hill, and John Burzichelli, D-3rd of Paulsboro.

“Governor Murphy’s massive cut to the school security funding in the original version of our bipartisan legislation is a total lapse in judgment,” Bucco, R-25th of Boonton, said in a statement. “If the Governor is so concerned about keeping our schools safe from gun violence, then I question why he would mandate such a drastic cut in school security.”

“Although I am pleased to see that the bond act will make it on this year’s ballot, I am concerned that the governor cut the funding amount for school security so significantly, that it will not go far enough to pay for needed improvements to strengthen our schools’ infrastructure,” Oroho, R-24th of Franklin, added.

In addition to slashing the bond referendum in half, Murphy conditionally vetoed another measure that sought to require school districts to have panic alarms installed in their school buildings within 10 months using funding available from the state Schools Development Authority. Murphy recommended the bill be changed to specify that the funding would be made available from the bond act and that the proposed requirement would not take effect unless the bond measure is approved.

While the state has reduced the amount of funding it plans to make available for school security, Burlington County continues to move ahead with its own plans to make $20 million in grant funding available for security upgrades at any of the county’s 21 public high schools.

Burlington County officials said a county-approved architecture firm has performed security audits and inspections at all 21 eligible high schools and will provide recommendations about possible improvement projects for those districts to consider.

In launching the initiative, Freeholder Director Kate Gibbs said securing schools was too important for the county to depend on the state to fund. On Monday, she said the state’s decision to reduce the bond amount reinforced the need for the county to take action.

“Two months ago I was proud to announce that Burlington County is leading the way with a national model on how to better protect students and teachers from unthinkable tragedy. We couldn’t rely on Trenton then, and we aren’t waiting now,” Gibbs said in a statement. “In the fall as residents across the state will just be deciding whether or not to make this smaller amount of money available, we hope to begin implementing security enhancements through the county’s program. We will continue to work quickly to ensure our schools become safer and more secure.”

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