New Jersey governor says cuts leave tuition grants uncertain for community college students

PATERSON, N.J. — New Jersey Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy called the Democrat-led Legislature's decision not to fully fund his proposed grants for low-income community college students "stone cold crazy stupid" Wednesday, saying his administration will have to figure out the program's future in the next fiscal year.

Murphy spoke at Passaic County Community College alongside Paterson Mayor Andre Sayegh, Higher Education Secretary Zakiya Smith Ellis and others.

The Community College Opportunity Grant program was a centerpiece of Murphy's promise to put the state on a pathway to free community college. The current year's budget put aside $20 million for the program, but Murphy sought $58.5 million for the next fiscal year that starts on Monday. The Legislature instead sent him a budget that puts just $30 million aside.

Murphy, a former ambassador to Germany who typically uses diplomatic language, was outspoken in response to a question about what the lower level of funding would mean.

"We have to figure that out," he said. "It is wildly popular. I am praying that folks wake up. ... This is stone cold crazy stupid not to fund this program, so to be determined."

Senate President Steve Sweeney said in a statement that it was a "false claim" to try to assert that the Senate did not prioritize higher education.

"We are committed to college opportunity and affordability," Sweeney said.

Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin declined to respond to Murphy's criticism on Wednesday.

Smith Ellis said the program began in the spring 2019 semester, and the department is still reviewing the final data on the funds given out and the number of students receiving aid. But she estimated somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000 students have benefited from the program.

Students who are enrolled at least part time and who have an adjusted gross income of up to $45,000 were eligible for the grants that could go toward tuition and certain fees.

Murphy says the Legislature's budget calls for increasing the income eligibility to $65,000 a year, which would expand the number of students getting awards, though without the higher funding he sought.

Lawmakers sent Murphy a $38.7 billion budget last week, and Murphy has spent this week traveling across the state criticizing lawmakers for failing to include several of his requests, notably a tax on income over $1 million, as well as the community college funding.

The budget does contain billions for school funding and public pension payments, as well as higher funding for New Jersey Transit.

Murphy, though, has campaigned as an outspoken liberal and has begun to decry members of the Legislature. Saying he stood on the side of the middle class, he argued that lawmakers were siding with millionaires.

"Again and again I find myself coming back to five simple words, whose side are you on?" he said Wednesday.

Murphy cannot add money to the budget on his desk, though he has a line-item veto he can use in other parts of the budget to cut spending. He has indicated he may strip out some of the more than $100 million in funds that lawmakers added for projects around the state.

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