By Marie Blistan
New Jersey faces a budget challenge like never before. We aren’t alone. It’s a nationwide problem that will require a national solution. But it will also require us to try new approaches to ensure that our state remains stable during this crisis. Borrowing money isn’t anyone’s first choice of how to balance a state budget, but with priorities like education, infrastructure and the health and safety of New Jersey residents on the line, we need to think big to protect the well-being of our students, their families and everyone who calls the Garden State home.
That is why NJEA supports Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin’s proposal to allow New Jersey to borrow the funds needed to weather this challenge and still meet its obligations to residents, including the students we educate. We cannot live up to our obligations as a state right now without strategic borrowing.
But we should also do everything we can to minimize that borrowing. One way to do that is to reduce the amount that school districts spend on health insurance, so they can invest those resources in other pressing needs. Fortunately, there is a plan that promises to save districts up to $600 million per year at a time when they need it most. Even better, that plan has already been passed unanimously by the New Jersey Senate under the leadership of Senate President Steve Sweeney, and it has NJEA’s full support.
It might sound too good to be true: a health insurance reform bill supported by every Senate Democrat, every Senate Republican and the NJEA. But it is true and it’s the result of years of hard work, discussion and cooperation with leaders in both the Senate and the Assembly. The Senate bill that passed in March has a lot in common with a bill that Speaker Coughlin himself sponsored last year. Both proposals lowered the cost of health care and shared those savings between educators who are being hard pressed by ever-increasing health care costs, and employers who also benefit from a reduction in their share of the overall cost. The ultimate winners are the taxpayers who support New Jersey’s great public schools and the students who rely on them, maybe now more than ever.
Gov. Murphy has repeatedly emphasized the magnitude of the budget challenges facing us. To his credit, he has made funding for schools a top priority. But even under his current proposal, districts across New Jersey will receive hundreds of millions less in direct state aid than was promised in his budget address in February. A significant portion of that shortfall could be made up by implementing the health care savings plan that has already passed in the Senate and that awaits an Assembly vote and the governor’s signature.
So, as we consider how to find the resources we will need to keep our schools strong, we commend Speaker Coughlin for his willingness to consider extraordinary borrowing. And we urge him and the entire Legislature to move quickly to pass the same health care savings bill that has already passed the Senate, so that the Governor can sign it and New Jersey districts can see their savings in upcoming school year. There is still time, but that time is quickly running out.
For a state in economic crisis, this a rare opportunity to cut costs without hurting working families. In fact, this bill helps working families and will put money back into our economy without costing taxpayers a dime.
It’s a win for students. It’s a win for educators. It’s a win for taxpayers. It’s time to get it done.
Marie Blistan is a teacher in Washington Twp. (Gloucester) and President of the 200,000-member New Jersey Education Association.