The campaign has begun in earnest to try to get New Jersey voters to support a $750 million bond issue for campus construction projects at the state's colleges and universities, but it's not clear whether there's going to be any organized opposition.
The ballot measure has wide and bipartisan support from Gov. Chris Christie, Republican and Democratic state lawmakers, business groups and, of course, the schools that would benefit — but critics warn that the state should not take on more debt.
Since his gubernatorial campaign in 2009, Christie, who supports the referendum, has lamented that New Jersey is a top exporter of college-bound high school graduates, saying it's largely because there's not enough room for them at the colleges and universities in New Jersey.
Several supporters rallied at Rutgers University on Monday to support of the bond, which would be the state's first for college construction since 1988.
If the referendum is approved, the state's research universities would share $300 million, other four-year public schools would split $242 million; county colleges would get $150 million and private schools could get $52 million— though Princeton University would be ineligible. The money would be allowed to be used only for academic buildings — not dorms or athletic facilities — and the schools themselves would have to pay at least one-fourth of construction costs.
At The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey in Galloway, six dorms have gone up in recent years and a new science building is under construction now — weighing down the college's ability to borrow more as its enrollment rises.
"We've had to do this all off our own resources," Stockton President Herman J. Saatkamp Jr. said.
Saatkamp said the bond could be used to help pay for a $69 million expansion of the science building that's still under construction and new education and business buildings at a total cost of about $45 million.
Two polls released in the past week have shown support for the measure — but one of them, the Fairleigh Dickinson University PublicMind poll, released Tuesday, found that two-thirds of them were not aware of the item on the Nov. 6 general election ballot. That poll of 901 randomly selected registered voters reached by telephone from Sept. 6-12, showed that registered voters favor the measure 48 percent to 34 percent with opposition largely among Republicans and those who are not college graduates. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.3 percentage points.
A Rutgers-Eagleton poll conducted Sept. 27-30 and released last week found stronger support among the 619 likely voters it surveyed: Sixty-two percent supported the measure and 27 percent opposed it. That poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.9 percentage points.
Both polls found about one-fifth of voters were undecided.
Steve Lonegan, a frequent political candidate in the state and head of New Jersey's branch of Americans for Prosperity, meanwhile, is speaking out against the bond issue. He said his organization's board would be deciding soon whether to launch — and pay for — a formal campaign against it.
"The state of New Jersey has watched its debt explode over the last decade and the last thing this state needs is more debt," Lonegan said. He also said he expects the money would be used for "student centers and rock-climbing walls" despite restrictions that it go only for academic buildings.
Several advocacy groups' analyses in recent years have found New Jersey among the states with the largest amount of state government debt and state government debt per capita.
The bond rating agency Standard and Poor's Rating Service which lowered the state's outlook last month to negative, calculates the state's debt at $33 billion. John Sudgen, a director of U.S. public finance at the firm, said that borrowing $750 million more is relatively small in the scope of the state's debt. Whether it results in a lowered bond rating depends on how it fits into the state's overall finances. Officials at Moody's Investor Service, said they would not comment on the proposal unless it passes.
Lonegan's opposition could be significant in part because his group led efforts that contributed to the defeat of two ballot measures in 2007. One would have dedicated a then-recently adopted increase in the state's sales tax to paying for property tax relief. The other would have allowed the state to borrow $450 million for stem cell research.
Supporters of the referendum have not taken chances, launching Building Our Future, a campaign run by a team of Republican and Democratic political consultants to promote the bond issue.
"It was a really big mix of business, labor, higher education," said Bill Hildebrand, a spokesman for the campaign. "The message is that this has near-unanimous support."
Hildebrand said the group has "a broad coalition of donors and supporters," but would not identify them or say how much the campaign has raised. The campaign will eventually be required to disclose its fundraising and spending.
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