Corzine Pushes $2.5B to Restart School Construction

Fri June 06, 2008 - Northeast Edition
Tom Hester Jr.

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) Gov. Jon S. Corzine on May 28 pushed legislation to let the state borrow $2.5 billion to restart school construction, a move questioned by Democrats and Republicans alike.

Corzine toured a Newark school to view rundown conditions and said it was among many examples of the need to improve school facilities.

“Students need to be in quality surroundings that bolster rather than hinder their academic progress,’’ Corzine said. “New Jersey students deserve no less.’’

The new borrowing would jump start a school construction program that’s already cost $8.6 billion but has been stalled by waste and mismanagement.

The program stems from a state Supreme Court order directing that new schools be built in some of the state’s poorest communities.

Corzine has told the high court he would push lawmakers to approve an additional $2.5 billion by June 30 to restart the program, but legislators have yet to schedule action on any legislation.

Corzine cited new reforms he said increase oversight and safeguards, but lawmakers noted plans to ask voters in November to amend the state Constitution to require voter approval for all state borrowing.

With that measure scheduled for a June 9 public hearing by a Senate budget panel, Sen. Leonard Lance, R-Hunterdon, urged Corzine to drop his push.

“Taxpayers should be given the right to decide at the polls whether they trust state officials to spend another $2.5 billion competently and efficiently,’’ Lance said.

Corzine’s fellow Democrats control the Legislature. Senate Budget Chairwoman Barbara Buono, D-Middlesex, said she was “bewildered’’ by Corzine’s May 28 event.

“It seems violative of the spirit and the intent of the proposed change,’’ Buono said.

The state has about $32 billion in debt, making it the nation’s fourth-most indebted state.

Since 1990, voters have approved $3 billion in borrowing while the state has borrowed $24 billion without voter approval. This includes borrowing for school construction, public worker pensions and to balance annual spending.

Corzine earlier this year proposed significantly increasing highway tolls to pay at least $16 billion in debt but no legislator backed that plan.

The new bill specifies that debt from the new school borrowing would be repaid with money collected from state income taxes.

The money would allow 27 projects to be finished and 20 new projects begun.

“Far too many children continue to attend schools that are barely able to provide a 20th century education, let alone a 21st century one,’’ said Assemblyman Albert Coutinho, D-Essex, who introduced the new borrowing legislation.

He noted concern over borrowing, but said, “No matter how much we want to evade the question, the simple fact is New Jersey is still under a court mandate to ensure all our children have the opportunity to attend school in modern, safe, state-of-the-art facilities.’’

But Assemblyman Joe Malone, R-Burlington, said the state hasn’t fully accounted for the wasteful spending in the school construction program and noted Corzine’s push comes while he seeks $2.9 billion in budget cuts.

“It flies in the face of common sense that the administration would push for this spending at a time when they are trying to sell the public on reductions in property tax relief and other vital state programs,’’ Malone said.

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