State Ballot Questions Tackle Library Funding and Environmental Settlements  

Oct 25, 2017

The race for New Jersey governor between Republican Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno and Democratic businessman Phil Murphy and several minor party or independent candidates is capturing most of the attention in advance of a very much un-talked about Nov. 7 general election.

But plenty of other positions will be up for grabs, including all 40 New Jersey Senate seats and all 80 Assembly seats as well as a slew of county and local offices. Two statewide measures will also be on the ballot.

The first is the New Jersey Library Construction Bond Act. A yes vote on the question would authorize the state to issue $125 million in bonds to provide grants to public libraries while a no vote opposes the bonding.

The state librarian, with approval of the president of Thomas Edison State University, would develop the eligibility criteria for libraries to receive grants. The grants would cover 50 percent of the cost of approved projects while the other 50 percent would have to come from a library’s local government or from private donors.

According to the New Jersey State Library, “This investment into New Jersey’s economy would help the construction industries and small businesses, as well as provide an opportunity for libraries to upgrade their facilities so they can best serve their customer’s needs.”

The measure was approved by large margins in the Assembly and Senate, with the former approving it by a 63-12 count (five members, including 9th District Assemblyman Brian Rumpf, did not vote) and the latter passing it by a 31-2 margin (seven senators did not vote). 9th District Sen. Christopher Connors and Assemblywoman DiAnne Gove voted to put the measure on the statewide ballot. Gov. Chris Christie signed the bill, certifying the measure for the ballot.

One supporter, Mayor Albert B. Kelly of Bridgeton, stated, “In 2017, it is easy to think of libraries as dinosaurs; relics from another era largely irrelevant in today’s internet-driven, Amazon-loving, smartphone-using, ride-sharing world. But libraries were always part of democratizing knowledge and education, just as public schools are.

“Today, there is digital inequality and the local library is part of leveling the playing field. Libraries are community anchors while also connecting each community to the world at large.”

The 14 lawmakers who voted against were all Republicans. Two Assemblymen who voted no were Jay Webber and Michael Carroll, who released a statement saying the bond measure would “hurt generations of citizens by spending and borrowing recklessly on this misguided idea.”

They continued their attack: “Our public libraries are among the best funded in the nation, with New Jersey ranking in the top five in per capita expenditures for libraries. ... Further, this bill’s call for $120 million in borrowing for library capital projects comes even as a Pew Research Center survey from September 2015 shows that fewer Americans are visiting libraries in this advancing digital age. Such a trend raises real questions about whether a capital program for libraries is warranted.”

The second question on the ballot, a proposed constitutional amendment, has a lengthy title – the Revenue from Environmental Lawsuits Dedicated to Environmental Projects Amendment.

A yes vote on Question 2 supports allocating state revenue from large settlements related to natural resource damages in cases of environmental contamination toward restoring and protecting natural resources and paying the costs of pursuing the settlements. A no vote opposes the amendment.

If passed Question 2 would ensure that monies won in environmental lawsuits by the state would be used to restore or replace damaged or lost natural resources. In other words, it would create a “lockbox,” keeping the funds away from the dreaded “general fund.”

The amendment was the result of a battle between the Republican governor and the Democratic-controlled Legislature over how to spend revenue from large pollution settlements involving pollution in the Passaic River and Exxon Mobil. The legal case against Exxon Mobil is still being appealed. But the Passaic River case brought New Jersey $355 million, of which $288 million was used not on environmental projects/restoration but to balance the state budget.

It passed in the New Jersey Senate by a 28 to 8 vote with four non-votes. It passed in the Assembly 56-18 with three Assemblypersons not voting and three others abstaining. Connors did not vote; Gove and Rumpf voted against putting the measure on the statewide ballot.

Christie did not get to veto the measure because it is officially a “legislatively referred constitutional amendment.”

— Rick Mellerup


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