New Jersey lawmakers expanded the scope of a bond proposal to add money for school safety in the wake of the Parkland, Florida, massacre.

The state Senate voted on April 12 to double what had been a $500 million general obligation bond proposal for vocational-technical schools to include money for enhanced school security. The expanded $1 billion debt proposition would appear on the Nov. 6 ballot.

A man views a memorial for the 17 students killed in the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School before the ENOUGH: National School Walkout rally in Parkland, Florida, U.S., on Wednesday, March 14, 2018.
A memorial for 17 people murdered at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, in February. The mass shooting led New Jersey senators to expand a planned bond referendum. Bloomberg News

The new components would fund security improvements at all kindergarten through 12th grade schools. The amendment to the bond legislation was inspired by the Feb. 14 slaughter by a lone gunman at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School that killed 17.

“We realized we had to do something more,” said State Sen. Anthony Bucco, R-Denville, who sponsored the Career and Technical Education and Security Bond Act with Senate President Steve Sweeney, D-Gloucester and Senator Steve Oroho, R-Franklin. “It would bring a tremendous amount of security to our schools.”

The bill, which passed the Senate in a 36-1 vote, would provide $500 million for school security grants. The bill requires that the Commissioner of Education develop procedures and criteria for the school facility security grants. It would not require schools to provide matching funds.

The Assembly has yet to act.

“Nothing is more important than the safety of our schoolchildren,” said Sweeney in a statement. “The horror of school shootings from Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012 to Parkland, Florida, last month makes it clear that we need to do everything we can to make our schools safe, and that includes improving the security of our school buildings.”

New Jersey’s move toward asking voters for $1 billion of new bonds emerges as the state grapples with the second lowest credit rating of U.S. states, due largely to a severe pension burden and revenue shortfalls. The Garden State’s general obligation bonds are rated A3 by Moody’s Investors Service, A-minus by S&P Global Ratings and A by both Fitch Ratings and Kroll Bond Rating Agency. Only Illinois has lower GO ratings.

Marc Pfeiffer, assistant director of the Bloustein Local Government Research Center at Rutgers University, said the proposal may confuse voters because of its unconnected themes of school security and vocational education. He said the school security issue should be studied more before the state decides to proceed with more debt.

“Emotional topics in emotional times are probably not the best way to approach something that has long-term ramifications without fully understanding the extent of the problem and how the funds will be allocated,” said Pfeiffer.

Original plans for this year’s bond proposition were focused on constructing and expanding New Jersey’s county vocational-technical schools to meet growing demand from students. The updated bill would provide $450 million in grants to county vocational-technical school districts along with $50 million for county college career and technical education grants.

Ben Dworkin, director of Rowan University's Institute for Public Policy and Citizenship, said including both school security and vocational expansion on the bond proposal should help enhance its chances of passage. He noted that New Jersey voters have strong track record of approving bond propositions and when they fail it tend to be because of a polarizing issue such as a rejected $450 million bond measure for stem-cell treatment research in 2007.

“The manufacturing industry is desperate for an upgrade to the vocational education in New Jersey and in the aftermath of the Parkland, Florida massacre you have parents across the political spectrum who are focused on school safety,” said Dworkin, who arrived at Rowan in January after previously leading The Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University for nine years. “Both of these issues have strong public support.”

New Jersey has had a strong recent track record of approving bond referendums. In 2017, voters approved $125 million of borrowing to fund library capital projects throughout the state. A $750 million debt bond proposition also passed in 2012 to fund enhancements to public colleges and universities.

This year’s bond vote is likely to correspond with tax increases, which Dworkin said will not likely impact its chances of passage. Gov. Phil Murphy is proposing $1.56 billion of new taxes in his $37.4 billion budget proposal to combat a structural budget deficit.

New Jersey’s bonded debt also soared by $3.2 billion over the past fiscal year to a record total of $46.1 billion as of June 30, 2017, according to the Department of Treasury’s annual financial report released on March 29. Despite the state’s high debt burden and credit woes, Dworkin said public support will likely be high for the referendum even for a figure as high as $1 billion because of the bipartisan nature of the proposal.

“Both of the issues in the bond issue have strong public support so I think most taxpayers will look at it differently than the general application of a budget,” said Dworkin. “The public is less focused on issues like debt service.”

Senator Bucco said he was impressed with how Republicans and Democrats worked together to add the school security component of the bond measure following the Parkland shooting. Bucco, who sponsored a 2016 law enabling retired police officers to provide security at New Jersey schools, said he is confident that voters will approve the referendum given its bipartisan support and with the school safety issue at the forefront.

“This is not a Republican or Democrat issue,” said Bucco, who expressed optimism that the Assembly will pass the bill in time to reach the November ballot. “This is for the security of kids in school.”

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