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Legislature may limit aid for college

A number of belt-tightening bills are up for consideration as New Jersey lawmakers prepare to wrap up for the year today.

TRENTON - The New Jersey Legislature wraps up for the year today, but not before voting on scores of bills including whether to scale back a popular college scholarship program, limit unused sick time retiring school officials can cash in, and allow towns to defer half their contributions to the state pension system.

The Assembly is poised to consider legislation revamping the NJ STARS college scholarship program by tightening eligibility standards and easing the financial pressures it puts on state colleges.

The STARS program provides full community-college scholarships to more than 4,100 high school students who graduate in the top 20 percent of their class. STARS II provides $4,000 scholarships to four-year colleges and universities for 1,200 STARS participants who graduate with a grade-point average of at least 3.0.

STARS was established in 2004; STARS II was added two years later.

The revisions being considered would limit eligibility to the top 15 percent of high school graduates, increase the GPA of those eligible for STARS II to 3.25, and cap family-income eligibility at $250,000. The bill would also limit STARS II funds to tuition only and cap the amount a student can receive at $7,000, to be shared equally by the college and the state.

The bill's cosponsors, Democrats Patrick Diegnan and Pamela Lampitt, say revising the program will protect its long-term viability.

The Senate also is set to take up the measure today.

Also scheduled for a Senate vote is a bill capping the amount of unused sick time top school officials can cash in at $15,000 and unused vacation time to one year's worth.

The law, which already applies to state government employees, was enacted last year for employees of local boards of education. This bill clarifies that the provision pertains to school superintendents, assistant superintendents, and school business administrators.

The Assembly has yet to take up the bill.

A bill by Senate President Richard Codey would allow towns across the state to defer half of next year's contribution to the public-employee pension system. Towns would be required to make 60 percent of their contribution in 2010 and 80 percent in 2011 under the bill, which would save the towns $1.35 billion starting with $584 million next year.

Gov. Corzine recommended the deferrals last month to help communities cope with the faltering economy without cutting services or excessively boosting property taxes.

Without the deferral, Corzine said, some municipalities would have to raise local taxes to unbearably high levels or make severe cuts to municipal services such as public safety, health and education.

The plan needs legislative approval. Republicans have vowed to oppose it.