NEW JERSEY - Next week's election ballot will contain not only voting options for local officials and county and members of the county or legislative district administrators, but also two questions regarding public finances. One question focuses on increasing the financial support for New Jersey's public libraries. The other addresses the use of recovery funds from Superstorm Sandy to maintain or address needs in the state's natural resources.
Here is an outline of the questions and reasons to for either for or against them as provided by the League of Women Voters of New Jersey. The league is a nonpartisan political organization whose goal is to increase all citizens' participation in government.
NEW JERSEY LIBRARY CONSTRUCTION BOND ACT PUBLIC QUESTION # 1
Question on the Ballot:
Do you approve the “New Jersey Library Construction Bond Act’? This bond act authorizes the State to issue bonds in the aggregate principal amount of $125 million. The proceeds of the bonds will be used to provide grants to public libraries. The grants will be used to build, equip and expand public libraries to increase capacity and serve the public.
Interpretive Statement on the Ballot:
Approval of this bond act will allow the State to sell $125 million in State general obligation bonds. Proceeds from the bonds will be used to provide grants to construct, expand and equip public libraries. Municipalities or counties that fund public libraries will match the grant amount. The municipality or county may solicit private funding to support its match. The State Librarian, in consultation with the President of Thomas Edison State University, will set eligibility criteria for the grants.
LWVNJ Education Fund
If approved, the State of New Jersey can borrow $125 million for capital project grants to public libraries. The municipality or county that funds the library seeking such a grant must put up half of the cost of the project for which grant funds are sought, but may solicit and receive grants or funds from any private source to support its required share of the project. The Office of Legislative Services estimates that the total debt service costs to the State may range from $233 million to $300 million spread over 35 years.
A Capital Improvement Survey of local public libraries, done by the New Jersey Library Association in late 2014, found that most libraries reported having capital needs, from upgrades to become ADA compliant to space, electrical, or furniture improvements. The survey did not, however, indicate the severity of these needs, nor the potential for funding them with local tax dollars.
Due to the challenging economic times, few libraries receive regular capital appropriations.
If the act is approved by the voters, the State Librarian and the President of Thomas Edison State University will establish criteria for grants and evaluate the proposals from local libraries against the criteria, and prepare a list of eligible projects.
Reasons to vote yes:
The additional funding could improve access to public libraries for many vulnerable residents.
The additional funding could help keep public libraries abreast of increasing technology needs.
The construction and equipment purchases involved would provide an economic stimulus to our New Jersey economy.
Reasons to vote no:
New Jersey already has an extremely high debt burden. This bond issue would add to it.
The amount is very restricted in purpose, and does not allow libraries to apply grants to their greatest needs, which may be personnel rather than space-related.
The criteria for distributing funds have not been developed.
NEW JERSEY REVENUE FROM ENVIRONMENTAL DAMAGES LAWSUITS DEDICATED TO ENVIRONMENTAL PROJECTS AMENDMENT
PUBLIC QUESTION #2
Question on Ballot:
Do you approve amending the Constitution to dedicate all moneys collected by the State relating to natural resource damages in cases of contamination of the environment? The moneys would have to be used to repair, restore, replace, or preserve the State’s natural resources. The moneys may also be used to pay legal or other costs incurred by the State in pursuing its claims.
Interpretive statement on the Ballot:
“This amendment would dedicate moneys collected by the State relating to natural resource damages through settlements or awards for legal claims based on environmental contamination. These moneys would be dedicated to repair, replace, or restore damaged natural resources, or to preserve the State’s natural resources. These moneys would be spent in an area as close as possible to the geographical area in which the damage occurred. The moneys could also be used to pay for the State’s legal or other costs in pursuing the claims. Currently, these moneys may be used for any State purpose.”
LWVNJ Education Fund
This question would amend the NJ State Constitution to restrict the use of moneys received by the state from environmental damages lawsuits so that such moneys are dedicated only to environmental restoration purposes. This type of constitutional amendment is commonly known as a “lockbox” amendment similar to the 2016 amendment that created the NJ Transportation Trust Fund so that all state gasoline tax revenues would be locked in for use in state transportation projects. Environmental damages lawsuits are not the same as lawsuits to clean up contaminated sites. Environmental damages lawsuits are intended to restore some people-oriented use of the polluted
land or water, such as creating usable public fishing areas, restoring public access to a water body for kayaking, or creating a public park. Recent major environmental damages lawsuits have had their focus in the state’s historically industrial cities where population is dense and green space is scarce. The proposed constitutional amendment would pay for construction, legal, and administrative costs for such environmental restoration of public natural resources.
This amendment was proposed as a response to the trend of diversions of state environmental damages lawsuit revenues from environmental restoration projects to the General Fund to balance the State budget of 2015, 2016, 2017 and the current Fiscal Year budget of 2018. The state constitution requires a balanced budget, and recent proportionally large diversions of environmental damages lawsuit revenues to help balance that budget have come under public scrutiny.
This proposed constitutional amendment not only restricts all revenues from environmental damages lawsuits to environmental projects, but also targets the restoration as close to the site of original environmental damage as possible. Permanent protection of a State natural resource at the damaged site or in the water region is also an approved environmental use under this amendment.
Reasons to Vote Yes:
Ensure that environmental damages lawsuits awards would result in restoration of the specified damaged New Jersey land or water, or if not possible at the damaged site, then restoration or permanent protection of State natural resources nearby.
Encourage the Department of Environmental Protection to continue to pursue lawsuits to restore polluted natural resources of the State so that the public can use them again.
Reasons to Vote No:
Allow the governor and state legislature to continue to have the flexibility to use environmental damages lawsuit revenues for the General Fund in order to balance the state budget.
The amount collected from a settlement may not be sufficient to complete a project once started. If funds are insufficient, additional funds may be required from the state budget for a project that was expected to be paid for out of settlement revenues.