As $750M college bond issue heads to voters, academic officials roll up sleeves

TRENTON – Gov. Chris Christie’s decision this week to sign off on allowing voters to decide in November whether the state should spend $750 million on New Jersey colleges and universities was welcome news for higher education institutions, but now the work really begins.

After lobbying the Legislature and governor’s office to invest in classrooms, labs, and libraries, the higher education community now has to convince New Jersey voters.

Christie signed legislation Tuesday that allows the question to go to voters in the upcoming election. If approved, the general obligation bonds will put hundreds of millions of dollars of improvements and expansions into higher education institutions – something advocates have argued is long overdue.

“We’re delighted. We’ve been waiting for a bond issue for higher education facilities for years and years,” said Paul Shelly, a spokesman for the New Jersey Association of State Colleges and Universities.

Speaking on behalf of the nonprofit that serves the state’s nine colleges and universities, Shelly said approval of the bond “will benefit all of higher education.”

However, the last time voters were asked whether general obligation bonds should be used to fund higher education projects was in 1988. Now, the association and others are tasked with convincing voters it’s the right thing to do, Shelly said.

“The next step is really going public with what the benefits of this bond issue are going to be,” he said, adding, “We have a short time to do this, of course.”

He explained the association plans to conduct polling in the coming weeks to discern whether voters are apprehensive about borrowing $750 million during the Great Recession.

“First of all, we have to get information out to the public on what types of projects we will do,” said Shelly, adding polling will identify any objections and narrow down “what their concerns will be about in voting for a bond issue.”

Then there’s the issue of the other question New Jersey voters will be asked in November – judicial pensions.

Before the Legislature overwhelmingly approved a proposal last month to put the question to voters of whether judges should be spared from the state’s landmark pension and benefit reform, Christie told residents he will drive the message home to voters to ensure judges are forced to “pay their fair share,” as lawmakers and the governor have put it.

“I will campaign for it in the fall so the voters know what the issue is,” Christie said in July.

Christie, who called the higher education bond referendum “a good investment” for the state, has not said publicly whether he will campaign to sway voters to approve the proposal.

The potential backlash from voters charged up about voting to ensure judges are held to the same standards of the state’s pension and benefit reform is not lost on the N.J. Association of State Colleges and Universities, Shelly said.

“It’s certainly worth research in terms of the public poll,” he said. “It could make it a more difficult lift for the bond issue.”

Despite what challenges could lay ahead, Shelly and others say they are optimistic voters will approve the bond proposal.

“Higher education always seems to have the support of voters,” said Steven Rose, the vice chairman of the New Jersey Presidents’ Council, which represents the state’s public, private and community colleges and universities.

“New Jersey voters have split their votes many times in the past on these types of things,” he said. “Truthfully, I think the voters will look favorably upon this (and that there) seems to be the history of it on these types of issues.”

Higher education groups have consistently conducted polls to get a feel for voter support when they’ve lobbied the Legislature for a bond initiative in recent years, Rose pointed out. The polling had shown positive results.

While Shelly concedes “it’s going to be much harder (to convince voters) than it would have been a couple years ago” due to the economy, Rose says he’s still optimistic.

“I trust the voters in New Jersey,” said Rose, explaining the $750 million boost to New Jersey schools will create immediate and long-term jobs, as well as help keep more college-bound state residents in New Jersey rather than attending out-of-state schools.

“I’m not underestimating the view of voters with not wanting to spend money, I get that,” said Rose, adding New Jersey voters are “a sophisticated bunch.”

As $750M college bond issue heads to voters, academic officials roll up sleeves