GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP — Voters on Nov. 6 will decide if the state should borrow $750 million for its colleges and universities, as well as whether state judges should pay more for their pensions and benefits.
Both measures are broadly popular, according to several polls, passing the state Legislature with near-unanimous support and now facing little organized opposition.
One statewide poll, by The Stockton Polling Institute at Richard Stockton College, found 72 percent of likely voters supported the “Build Our Future Bond Act,” while 62 percent supported the proposal to get judges to pay more. Polls by the Eagleton Institute of Politics and Fairleigh Dickinson University also found support.
Schools are lobbying for voters to pass the bond referendum, which would require schools to add a 25 percent matching amount to whatever funding they would receive from the bond to build academic facilities. The money would go to the state’s county colleges and public and private universities, with the exception of Princeton.
At Stockton, which stands to receive a portion of the $247.5 million set aside for the nine state colleges and universities, the school played host to a “Burritos, Ballots & the Bond” event for students Tuesday night at the Campus Center Coffee House. The event was designed to encourage students to support the measure, said Ryan Alexander, 27, the vice president of the college Democrats, one of the school’s bond supporters.
On Wednesday morning, Senate President Stephen Sweeney visited the school as part of his scheduled visits to three South Jersey colleges.
Accompanied by school President Herman J. Saatkamp and Debra DiLorenzo, president and CEO of the Chamber of Commerce Southern New Jersey, Sweeney spoke and toured part of the campus.
The reason the bond is so important, Sweeney said, is that 35,000 students regularly leave the state for schools elsewhere. This amounts to $7 billion lost to other states, he said, and many students never return. “We’re exporting our future,” he said, and added some companies that have relocated to other places with a better-trained workforce.
The bond would also lead to jobs for some 10,000 construction workers next year, said Sweeney, who also works as a general organizer for the International Association of Ironworkers.
The tour stopped in front of a $40 million under-construction science building. Saatkamp said the 66,000 square-foot building is only two-thirds the size of what was needed, but was all the school could afford. It would seek to build the remainder should the bond pass.
At Atlantic Cape Community College, spokeswoman Kathy Corbalis said the school has taken several steps to publicize the bond, including emails to staff and a mention in the employee newsletter. Other supporters have placed posters around campus.
Somers Point attorney Seth Grossman, the executive director of the libertarian-leaning Liberty and Prosperity organization, said he was unsurprised at the limited opposition. “It’s a simple reason. A ‘yes’ vote means tons of money for everybody,” he said, including building trades, and those involved with handling the bond transaction. Meanwhile, the borrowing is passed off to younger residents. “You can borrow money because half of them aren’t even born yet,” he said.
Grossman said he is concerned because the proposal says the bond would be repaid with sales tax revenues, and if that proves insufficient, then state officials would tap local property tax revenues. Grossman said, “Wall Street knows how shaky New Jersey debt is.”
There has also been little organized opposition to the proposal to make judges pay more for their pensions and benefits, in part because the state judiciary is barred from active politics. Even in retirement, several area judges declined comment, saying they felt it was inappropriate to do so.
The proposal would amend the state constitution to make a 2011 law that generally required all state workers pay more for pensions and health benefits apply to the judicial branch. Judges balked at the law, citing the state constitution that keeps sitting judges’ salaries from being reduced.
The state Supreme Court eventually ruled judges were exempt, and state lawmakers quickly proposed to amend the constitution to make the law apply. If enacted, it would increase pension contributions from 3 percent to 12 percent of their salary by 2017. Most judges are paid $165,000.
However, two retired judges said the proposal would undermine the state’s judicial independence.
Valerie Armstrong, who retired in November 2011, wrote in an email that she understood the public’s increasing concern about public employee compensation. But the framers of the state constitution wanted the judiciary to be free to rule, regardless of how unpopular a decision may be to lawmakers, without fearing they could be paid less.
“It seems to me, that passage of this referendum is a significant step toward chipping away at the independence of the New Jersey judiciary, a judiciary that currently has a reputation for being among the finest in our nation,” she wrote.
Similarly, Richard Williams, who left the bench in September 2004, said that it was an independent judiciary that told the government that they couldn’t racially profile motorists and told officials they couldn’t take land away from someone in order for Donald Trump to expand a casino. The judges were protected from retaliation.
“A lot of people believe they can’t fight City Hall,” Williams said. “They can fight City Hall in an independent court, and that may be the only forum that they will have.”
Lawmakers approved the measure near-unanimously. State Sen. Jim Whelan, D-Atlantic, said he voted for the measure “because we voted to make everyone else pay for their benefits and pensions. I don’t think that judges should be treated any better than cops, firemen, teachers or people who fix potholes.”
While he said he had respect for Armstrong and Williams, Whelan said arguments that this undermined judicial independence are “absurd.”
“We’re not in any way attempting to influence judicial decisions,” Whelan said. “We are not singling out their judges we like or judges we don’t like.”
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