Voters have appeared to approve $500 million for new school construction projects — but won't know yet where that money is going.

According to Townsquare News Network tallies, voters appeared to support a ballot question for the funding by approximately 52-48 percent Tuesday. The numbers aren't final — some districts weren't yet reporting, and the state has yet to count hundreds of thousands of mail-in ballots that may yet be returned. But the gap appeared unlikely to close even with those uncounted ballots.

The types of projects that will be funded were specified, though the recipients were not. The question provided $350 million for county vocational schools and school security, $50 million for county colleges and $100 million for school district water infrastructure improvement projects.

For the vo-tech and county college projects, the state would provide 75 percent of the funding, with the counties providing a 25 percent match.

Legislative leaders have said the intention is to help the economy by providing a better-prepared workforce for the types of jobs employers have a hard time filling — including skilled technical jobs in clean energy fields.

The state Senate passed a bill providing for the ballot question three times, adjusting for revisions it and Murphy made, by overwhelming bipartisan margins. Only Sen. Michael Doherty, R-Warren, voted against it. The Assembly passed each version before it with no votes against.

“Our community colleges, our vo-tech schools, our two-year programs, our certificate programs – these are the paths where a four-year college is not always,” said state Sen. Vin Gopal, D-Monmouth, who heads the Legislative Manufacturing Caucus, previously said.

“There’s nothing more important than the security of our children,” state Sen. Steve Oroho, R-Sussex. “There’s nothing more important than making sure that they’re not drinking water with lead in it.”

Spending more ... and less

Over time, the legislature aimed to spend more and more on the bill — until Murphy cut it back. At one point, it reached nearly $1 billion.

“I applaud the Legislature for identifying these critically important priorities," Murphy said in August in a veto that cut the measure in half. "There are few things as crucial to the strength and vitality of our great state as developing a skilled, well-trained workforce and protecting the health and safety of our school children"

But he said those priorities had to be balanced against fiscal responsibility.  The state’s general obligation and contract bonds already exceed $33 billion. The state also faces more than $142 billion in long-term pension liabilities and $80 billion in unfunded, post-retirement medical liabilities.

 

With previous reporting by Michael Symons.

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