Supporters working to ensure higher-ed bond not another hurricane victim

TRENTON – Supporters of the $750 million bond issue for public higher-education facilities hope Hurricane Sandy doesn’t claim this long-awaited initiative as yet one more of its victims.

As Thomas Bracken, president of the state Chamber of Commerce, sees it, the state can rebuild from Sandy at the same time it builds new classrooms for colleges and universities.

The bond issue, on Tuesday’s ballot, would be the first for public higher education in New Jersey in decades. It can only be used for new classrooms or laboratories, not for non-academic projects such as dorms or athletic stadiums.

But the devastation of Sandy has raised questions about whether the state can handle both needs at once.

The bond issue has widespread, diverse support. Leaders in the fields of business, labor, academia and both political parties have been waging a coordinated public relations campaign to champion the necessity of the bond issue to build state-of-the-art facilities that can stem New Jersey’s outward migration of students and teachers.

“They are two totally separate issues,’’ Bracken said of any suggestion that rebuilding from the hurricane precludes support for the higher-education bond. “One is for enhancing higher education, which has been ignored for 24 years. It is about making us more competitive in the higher-education field, to produce graduates who can fulfill our work force needs.”

He pointed out that Gov. Chris Christie – also a bond issue supporter – has indicated he will find ways within the budget to address both concerns.

“I think both of them are going to be priority items,’’ Bracken said of the college bond and hurricane repairs, “and if you have two priority items you will have to find things that are not priority items.”

Under the $750 million bond issue, 25 percent of a project cost has to come from the college itself, which Bracken said will translate into more than a billion dollars in work.

The issue will have about $50 million a year in interest. That will be the money that needs to be “found’’ somehow, according to Bracken.

In addition, according to the bond question coalition, Building Our Future, it will generate approximately $26.4 million a year in tax revenues related to the jobs that are created, as well as about $550 million a year in labor as a result of direct and indirect jobs related to the projects.

One opponent of the effort is Steve Lonegan of the tea party group, Americans for Prosperity.

“New Jersey is broke and tens of billions of dollars in debt,” he said in a release. “After decades of fiscal mismanagement, the chickens have come home to roost. There is no money for a rainy day,” Lonegan said.

He called on legislative leaders Sens. Steve Sweeney and Thomas Kean Jr. to rescind support for the bond question.

But Kean, (R-21), Westfield, responded that a higher-education system that is constantly struggling to compete with the rest of the nation does not help build prosperity here.  The bond issue, he said, is long overdue.

“If we are to continue to balance the budget and get our debt under control without raising taxes, we need growth in the private-sector employers that demand well-trained, highly skilled college graduates.  Moreover, I trust the voters to make this decision, which they will on Tuesday, ” Kean said.

Sweeney, (D-3), West Deptford, had harsh words for Lonegan. “It is pathetic that Mr. Lonegan would use a national tragedy to further his political agenda. Everyone knows he has been against this from the very beginning.

“We cannot afford not to invest in higher education in New Jersey, especially now. As we work on rebuilding New Jersey, we have to ensure that we keep the best and the brightest minds here, and attract those from across the country. That is how you rebuild.”

Supporters working to ensure higher-ed bond not another hurricane victim