TRENTON - State lawmakers yesterday advanced a plan to require voter approval for state borrowing, despite protests from urban school advocates who contend it would derail plans to rebuild schools in the state's poorest cities.
The Assembly Appropriations Committee released the proposed constitutional amendment yesterday. The measure was previously approved by a Senate panel and is set for a public hearing before a Senate budget panel on Monday.
Sen. Leonard Lance (R., Hunterdon), who has long backed requiring voter approval for state borrowing, called for quick final action by both full houses.
The amendment would need three-fifths approval from the Assembly and the Senate to make it onto November's ballot for voters to decide.
"It is important that we move before summer break begins to ensure that this critical fiscal reform measure is placed on the November general election ballot," Lance said.
New Jersey has $32 billion in debt, making it the nation's fourth-most indebted state.
Since 1990, voters have approved $3 billion in borrowing while the state has borrowed $24 billion without voter approval. This includes borrowing for school construction, public worker pensions and to balance annual spending.
"For New Jersey to return to solid fiscal footing, we need to ensure that no debt is incurred unless the people give their clear approval," said Assemblyman Nelson Albano (D., Cape May).
Gov. Corzine has backed requiring voter approval for state borrowing. But the Democratic governor also promised the state Supreme Court - which has ordered the state to build new schools in some of New Jersey's poorest communities - that he would push to get the $2.5 billion approved by lawmakers by June 30.
The new money would restart a construction program that has cost $8.6 billion but has been stalled by waste and mismanagement.
Key legislators such as Senate Budget Chairwoman Barbara Buono (D., Middlesex) and Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D., Union) contend any new school borrowing should go before the voters.
Sen. Ronald Rice said some lawmakers back a $4 billion November referendum that would include money for suburban schools. But Rice (D., Essex) said he's working to have the Legislature approve the $2.5 billion in borrowing by month's end. He said any delay will mean higher costs.
"It's got to go," Rice said. "If not, it may wind up back in court."
Corzine spokeswoman Deborah Howlett said Corzine continues to back legislation that would have the Legislature borrow the $2.5 billion.
David G. Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center, which represents the state's poorest schools, said the Supreme Court has said borrowing for urban school construction doesn't need voter approval.
"Support for the proposed amendment as written is a vote for inequality and unequal treatment of our most vulnerable and needy children," Sciarra said.
Assembly Republicans expressed concern that the proposed amendment did not clearly address education borrowing that would be ordered by a court.
"This bill may be designed to stop borrowing without voter approval, but I don't think it will succeed in accomplishing that mission as drafted," said Assemblyman Sam Thompson (R., Monmouth).