PATERSON, N.J. — Gov. Phil Murphy called the Democratic-led Legislature’s decision to not fully fund his proposed grants for low-income community college students “stone cold crazy stupid” Wednesday, saying his administration will have to figure out the program’s future in the next fiscal year.
Murphy spoke at Passaic County Community College alongside Paterson Mayor Andre Sayegh, Higher Education Secretary Zakiya Smith Ellis, and others.
The Community College Opportunity Grant program was a centerpiece of Murphy’s promise to put the state on a pathway to free community college. The current year’s budget put aside $20 million for the program, but Murphy sought $58.5 million for the next fiscal year, which starts on Monday. The Legislature instead sent him a budget that puts $30 million aside.
Murphy, a former ambassador to Germany who typically uses diplomatic language, was outspoken in response to a question about what the lower level of funding would mean.
“We have to figure that out,” he said. “It is wildly popular. I am praying that folks wake up.… This is stone cold crazy stupid not to fund this program, so, to be determined.”
Senate President Stephen Sweeney said in a statement that it was a “false claim” to try to assert that the Senate did not prioritize higher education. “We are committed to college opportunity and affordability,” Sweeney said.
Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin declined to respond to Murphy’s criticism.
Smith Ellis said the program began in the spring 2019 semester, and the department is still reviewing the final data on the funds given out and the number of students receiving aid. But she estimated that between 5,000 and 10,000 students have benefited from the program.
Students who are enrolled at least part time and who have an adjusted gross income of up to $45,000 were eligible for the grants, which could go toward tuition and certain fees.
Murphy says the Legislature's budget calls for increasing the income eligibility to $65,000 a year, which would expand the number of students getting awards, though without the higher funding he sought.
Lawmakers sent Murphy a $38.7 billion budget last week, and Murphy has spent this week traveling across the state criticizing lawmakers for failing to include several of his requests, notably a tax on income over $1 million, as well as the community college funding.
The budget does contain billions for school funding and public pension payments, as well as higher funding for NJ Transit.
Murphy has campaigned as an outspoken liberal and has begun to decry the actions of members of the Legislature. Saying he stood on the side of the middle class, he argued that lawmakers were siding with millionaires.
“Again and again I find myself coming back to five simple words: Whose side are you on?” he said.