As expected, on June 4 the General Assembly passed A-4175, which would authorize the state to borrow $5 billion by selling bonds, while also permitting the state to borrow additional money from the federal government to balance the budget. The treasurer has said the state could qualify for as much as $9 billion in additional federal funds, though it’s not clear how much the state will actually request.

The bill, approved by a 52 to 28 vote, faces an uncertain future in the state Senate, where Senate President Steve Sweeney has been noncommittal about it. Sweeney has sought greater clarity on the governor’s proposal, including a repayment schedule and how the funds — if approved — would be allocated.

Opponents continued to voice concern over both the size of the debt the legislation would permit — and its constitutionality. In 2004, the state Supreme Court ruled against such borrowing without voter approval.  The Murphy administration, however, contends the COVID-19 pandemic constitutes an extreme emergency and would therefore be allowed by the state constitution.

Sweeney has acknowledged the state will most likely need to borrow, but he has expressed frustration with what he says is a lack of transparency from the administration during the budgeting process. The Senate has taken a wait-and-see approach, with some suggesting waiting until the July 15 tax collections are in before discussing borrowing money.

Concerns with Emma’s Law  On Friday, June 5, the Senate Transportation Committee advanced legislation that would require any school bus that transports students with special needs to be equipped with interior cameras and global positioning systems.  Entitled “Emma’s Law,” the legislation (S-277) is named after a non-verbal, special needs student who experienced a stressful and upsetting event when her bus driver became lost for several hours while transporting her, and fellow students, to school.

Specifically, the proposal requires all school buses transporting students with special needs to be equipped with:

  1. a video camera on the interior of the school bus to monitor student safety while the students are being transported;
  2. a global positioning system that provides information about the location and speed of each school bus in real time; and
  3. two-way communications equipment, which may include, but not be limited to, a cellular or other wireless telephone.

While the NJSBA appreciates the sponsor’s intent to prevent similar events to the one Emma experienced from occurring in the future, the Association is unable to support this particular approach. In testimony before the committee, the NJSBA expressed concerns that the legislation will impose a financial burden on school districts, but does not include a state appropriation or funding mechanism to offset those potentially significant costs.  These concerns have been exacerbated by the economic turmoil and uncertainty caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the fact that all school districts will now be facing either a cut in state assistance or a reduction in the amount they were promised when they received their state aid notices earlier this year. Representatives of the N.J. Education Association and N.J. Principals and Supervisors Association joined the NJSBA in expressing concerns about the bill.

The bill was released from committee, but it is expected to be referred to the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee for consideration of its fiscal impact.  Should the bill progress any further, the NJSBA is encouraging the Legislature to include an appropriation or consider alternative approaches that will mitigate its financial impact while still meeting the sponsor’s objective.