N.J. lawmakers advance more money for schools

June 20, 2008 2:11:28 PM PDT
Democratic legislators Friday advanced legislation to borrow $3.9 billion for school construction, mostly in poor cities, but a top lawmaker said it remained unclear how legislators will resolve differences over key spending bills. Senate Majority Leader Stephen Sweeney said a breakthrough remained uncertain in a dispute among lawmakers over the state budget, benefit cuts for public workers and borrowing for school construction.

"Nothing is decided," said Sweeney, D-Gloucester. "Everything is in discussion. This thing is so in flux right now."

Assembly and Senate budget committees released the school borrowing bill, clearing it for final votes in both houses, though Sweeney said final passage could prove difficult.

Sen. Ronald Rice, D-Essex, chairman of the 15-member black legislative caucus, said many legislators won't vote for the budget unless the borrowing is approved, but other legislators want voters to approve the borrowing. Rice told the panel the state cannot afford to wait.

"This is a bill for children," Rice said.

But Sen. Leonard Lance, R-Hunterdon, said it will cost, when interest is considered, $6.82 billion to pay back the borrowing. He wants voters to decide it.

"We will put our children and their children in debt for decades," Lance said.

But Assembly Democrats cited shoddy conditions in aging city schools such as leaky roofs, faulty alarm systems, scarce restrooms and classes held in hallways.

"It's appalling folks," said Assemblyman Joseph Cryan, D-Union. "The time for this is long past."

Assemblywoman Alison Littell McHose, R-Sussex, said she understood concerns about building conditions, but noted mounting state debt and fiscal woes.

"The taxpayers are so overburdened already," she said. "I really have a problem with this not going before the voters."

Gov. Jon S. Corzine has backed requiring voter approval for new borrowing, but noted the state Supreme Court ordered new schools in the poorest districts.

As the state's July 1 constitutional budget deadline neared, the Assembly budget committee Thursday released the $32.8 billion budget proposal but the Senate never acted.

The $32.8 billion budget plan backed by Corzine and legislative leaders cuts funding for several key services, including hospitals, municipalities, colleges and nursing homes. Corzine contends the cuts would be painful but necessary. Republicans said the budget passes costs onto property taxpayers.

Several lawmakers also link support for the budget to whether the pension measures pass.

Lawmakers haven't acted on the pension bills, which among other things would eliminate benefits for part-timers, raise the retirement age from 60 to 62 and cut benefits by changing how pensions are calculated. Sweeney introduced new legislation that would reduce the number of paid holidays from 13 to 12 for state and local governments.

Corzine Thursday continued to be noncommittal to the pension reforms some legislators insist are needed to pay for retirement incentives Corzine wants to offer to 2,000 state workers.

Public unions oppose the cuts. The New Jersey Education Association, the state's largest teachers union, protested Friday at the offices of 30 senators.

"We will not tolerate, not now, not ever, any attempt to scapegoat teachers, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, crossing guards and other school employees for sins they have never committed," NJEA President Joyce Powell said.

Other unions made phone calls to legislators.

"Legislating these changes not only violates our contract, but these bills paint with too broad a brush and don't specifically target pension abuse," said Carla Katz, president of Communications Workers of America Local 1034, which represents 10,000 state workers.