N.J. Democrats: We can rev up state's ailing economy

NJ.com- State Senate Democrats said Monday they will offer a slate of bills aimed at reviving New Jersey's economy by expanding pre-k and college scholarships, cutting retirement income taxes and improving New Jersey's transportation network.

The proposals, which won't be introduced until the next legislative session, were forged over two months. Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) announced the initiative in October, saying one week would be dedicated to six areas of concern: early childhood education, higher education affordability, public-private partnerships, neighborhoods, transportation and infrastructure and retirement security.

"Very recently there's been a national report that seems to indicate in our country the rich are getting richer, the poor are getting poorer and the middle class is waning. I believe thus package that we're talking about today is investing in you, investing in the middle class in New Jersey," Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) said. "And I think that's probably one of the most important steps that we can make forward today."

Sweeney, a likely candidate for governor in 2017, said he hopes committing resources to these areas will spur economic growth. And he's relying on growth in state revenues to cover the costs of these proposals.

"New Jersey's growth rate this year is about 3.4 percent. the national average is 5.7," Sweeney said at a Statehouse news conference Monday. "Other places are investing. We're not, and you can see it."

One proposal would raise the the exemption of taxes on retirement income from $15,000 for an individual and $20,000 for a married couple filing jointly to $75,000 for an individual and $100,000 for a married couple filing jointly. With a three-year phase-in, the state lose could between $70 million and $130 million a year, according to a Senate Majority fact sheet.

New Jersey's low exemption is out of whack with neighboring states, and raising it will enable retirees to stay in their homes and close to their families, Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen) said.

"These are folks that we are quite certain... who are going to stay here, they're going to use their disposable income to remain here. There's the sales tax, property taxes and other things here that they're going to be spending money here in the state to offset any loss of revenue from these exemptions," he said. "We believe this is the right thing to do for many of our folks who have spent their careers here, raised their families here." he said.

With $63 million in 2017 and $103 million in 2018, lawmakers want to fund pre-k in 17 new school districts. Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex) said she also wants to create a loan pilot program to encourage private investment in early childhood education.

The fact sheet says "...economic experts are offering another reason: mounting evidence shows that investments in early education are an important economic development strategy due to long-lasting societal benefits."

Other legislation would create more scholarships for high-performing high schoolers who stay in New Jersey attend county colleges and four-year public universities. Sen. Sandra Cunningham (D-Hudson) said New Jersey needs to stop the flow of New Jersey's high school graduates to out-of-state colleges. Four of ten of the state's high school graduates leave the state for college, according to the fact sheet.

Cunningham recommended the state replace NJ STARS, which rewards the top 15 percent of graduates, with a program open to the top 20 percent attending county colleges.

Under the proposed honor program, students in the top 10 percent of their class could receive $6,000 a year to attend an in-state four-year public college.

A third program, the "Einstein Scholarship," would rely on a panel to establish criteria for full tuition grants to 100 top high school graduates attending a four-year public institution in New Jersey.

Yet another initiative, which Sweeney said stemmed from "eye opening" meetings with high schoolers, would require that students receive financial literacy guidance on state and federal tuition assistance and student debt.

The slate also includes Democrats' call for $2 billion a year for the Transportation Trust Fund, which will run out of money for new projects this summer. Sweeney said the Senate and Assembly are still working to strike a deal to raise money for the fund.

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