Murphy Calls for Free Tuition at Community College, but at What Price?

“The return on the investment, if you will, is significant and relatively soon,” Murphy said.

Expensive ideas

Still, the free-tuition proposal adds to a list of promises that Murphy, a newcomer to elected politics, has been making on the campaign trail this year even as questions have been raised about how exactly he’ll be able to come up with the requisite funding. Other priorities include increasing aid for education, public-employee pensions, and New Jersey Transit.

A spokesman for Republican candidate Kim Guadagno pounced on that issue yesterday in response to Murphy’s community college proposal, saying “there’s no such thing as a free lunch.” Murphy’s proposal also raised eyebrows yesterday during a daylong “affordability summit” organized by the state’s business community and held in Somerset.

New Jersey has been in the midst of a slow but steady recovery in the wake of the Great Recession; right now the state’s 4.5 percent unemployment rate is slightly higher than the federal jobless average of 4.4 percent. Household income has also gone up over the last year by nearly 4 percent in New Jersey, according to the latest data from the U.S. Census Bureau. But the median income, adjusted for inflation, has still not reached pre-recession levels, and New Jersey also ranked overall as one of the worst states in the country when it comes to income inequality.

More computer science

Murphy, a former Goldman Sachs executive who served as the U.S. ambassador to Germany under former President Barack Obama, said his goal is to modernize the state economy while also making it more equitable for women, minorities, and the disabled. In addition to offering free community college tuition, he called for more focus on computer science and vocational-technical training in the state’s public schools.

He also threw his backing behind a proposal that’s been supported by Democrats in the state Senate to float a new bond issue to improve vocational-technical school facilities across the state. Expanding apprenticeship programs and emphasizing sectors of the economy involving clean energy and energy resilience that haven’t been a top priority of Gov. Chris Christie’s administration are other elements of Murphy’s workforce-development platform.

“New Jersey needs to be put on an entirely new economic course,” Murphy said during yesterday’s news conference.

Putting a price on free tuition

When asked how much it will cost to provide free community college tuition in New Jersey, Murphy initially estimated the amount could be as high as $400 million, and he said that the initiative could be implemented in phases during his first term to ease the impact on the overall state budget, which totals close to $35 billion. But Murphy’s staff said after the news conference that the figure is likely closer to $200 million.

Still, Murphy has already promised to start phasing in more funding for K-12 school districts since the state’s school-aid law has been underfunded by between $1 billion and $2 billion annually throughout Christie’s tenure. And he’s promised, among other priorities, to keep New Jersey on a phase-in schedule toward the full contribution into the public-employee pension system that the state should be making to help address an unfunded liability that measures at least $50 billion.

On the revenue side, Murphy is promising to bring in over $1 billion in new revenue by increasing taxes on millionaires and hedge-fund managers, and by tightening up the state’s corporate-tax regulations. He’s also banking on lawmakers approving his proposal to legalize and tax marijuana, suspecting it could generate up to $300 million in new revenue.

Guadagno raises doubts

But Guadagno, who recent polls show is far behind Murphy at this point in the campaign, has repeatedly questioned whether her opponent will be able to live up to all of his campaign promises without raising taxes on more than just the wealthy, large corporations, and those who smoke marijuana. The incumbent lieutenant governor serving alongside Christie has also faulted Muphry for not focusing more energy on finding ways to ease local property-tax bills that average over $8,500 in New Jersey.

In fact, while Murphy was talking about free community college in Trenton yesterday, Guadagno was discussing property taxes — she’s proposing a “circuit-breaker” tax-relief program if elected — and talking taxes in general as she addressed attendees of the “affordability summit” that was held in Somerset, said spokesman Ricky Diaz.

“She also talked about how her property-tax plan would help the middle class, not millionaires like Phil Murphy,” Diaz said.

Attendees of the summit also heard from experts on the state economy and pension system, and they participated in discussions geared around the issues of regulations, tax reform, and overall affordability. Organizers said they invited both gubernatorial candidates, but only Guadagno was able to attend. They’re now planning to use the discussions to draft a white paper that will eventually be submitted to the gubernatorial candidates as they look to what happens in Trenton after November.

“This is a time for action,” said Tom Bracken, president and chief executive of the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce. “We can now focus on some of the things we need to implement to move forward.”

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