NEW JERSEY POLICY PERSPECTIVE
With a presidential election and the devastation of Sandy, it’s no wonder that little space or attention has been given to the “Building Our Future” referendum question on Tuesday’s ballot. If Public Question 1 is approved, New Jersey would issue $750 million in bonds for participating colleges and universities to construct academic and research facilities. The colleges and universities would add $187.5 million of their own money to go towards projects, and athletic facilities and fancy student centers are not eligible.
New Jerseyans huddled in cold, dark homes may not be in the mood to view a bond issue favorably. And it doesn’t help that “debt” and “deficits” have been the focus of prolonged, stalemated debate in Washington.
Still, there are many reasons to support this proposal; here are the big three:
New Jersey is falling behind states that are swiping some of our best jobs.
Some politicians preach that New Jersey’s high tax rates are the most important explanation for high unemployment and lost jobs. Yet, when highly valued pharmaceutical research jobs depart Nutley (Roche) or Bridgewater (Sanofi-Aventis), they don’t go to low-tax locales like Wyoming or Alabama, but to other high-tax states like California, New York, and Massachusetts. In short, they go to places with great research universities, medical schools and teaching hospitals.
“Build it and they will come” applies to more than baseball fields. High-quality academic institutions with world-class facilities attract the world’s best researchers and scholars. Rutgers, for example, has a highly respected pharmacy school and biosciences faculty. However, it has not stayed current with rapidly changing technology and research facilities. It needs to. We all benefit if it does.
New Jersey benefits from keeping more of its gifted students in state.
A college education is an expensive investment to make. New Jersey is a big exporter of college students (in part because there are many fewer private colleges than in New York, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, or Massachusetts). But as higher-education costs have risen more quickly than the wages of many families, more New Jersey families are turning to public colleges and universities, which are much more affordable than out-of-state liberal arts institutions, even with the sharp rise in public tuition rates. New Jersey public higher education has been a boom industry over the last decade. Since 2001, full-time enrollments at Rutgers are up 26.9 percent, at the state colleges by 39.7 percent, and at community colleges by a staggering 55.8 percent.
This surge in enrollments taxes facilities that are falling further behind. The public colleges and universities estimate the backlog at over $6 billion, with an urgent list of $2.4 billion in new facilities and modernization of existing academic buildings. The state has provided no capital assistance in 24 years, unlike many of the states competing with New Jersey for high-value-added jobs. Dormitories and dining facilities can be financed by student user-fees, but academic and research facilities cannot.
The higher education bond issue puts the focus back on investment in the state’s future.
The idea of investing in higher education unites a diverse group of organizations with varied interests, all in the name of putting New Jersey back on the path to prosperity. Of course, colleges and universities and construction unions favor approval. But led by former Gov. Tom Kean, an unusual coalition of business associations, commercial real estate developers, utilities and major corporations is also stumping for a “yes” vote.
New Jersey got into its present muddle by taking a course of short-term, politically appealing moves that ignored the state’s longer-term prospects. Modest, practically invisible tax cuts have long dominated the political discourse. Now, a bipartisan effort led by Democrats in the legislature and Gov. Christie has finally returned attention to restoring New Jersey’s place as a center of innovation, research, and enterprise – and it’s an effort that deserves your support.
Gordon MacInnes is president of NJPP and also a member of the Rutgers Board of Governors. The views expressed above do not represent those of the Board or administration of Rutgers University.