Murphy releases first round of pre-K expansion money

BY Brenda Flanagan, Senior Correspondent |

The governor chose Columbus School in Carteret to announce the first round of state aid — $20.6 million to expand prekindergarten classes in 31 eligible districts across New Jersey. The aid doubles Carteret’s $285,000 pre-K program.

“Meeting these basic yet imperative needs allow children to feel comfortable and safe, which makes them ready to learn,” said Kindergarten teacher Katie Santoro.

“We estimate that this will enhance and increase the number of preschool programs for more than 2,000 3- and 4-year-olds across New Jersey,” Gov. Phil Murphy said.

Murphy then kicked off a wider-ranging question and answer session. The debate continues over how much to tax legal marijuana, and the governor confirmed he still supports a higher tax rate in the 25 percent range. But sources confirmed draft legislation that would, among other things, set New Jersey’s tax rate for legal weed at a flat 10 percent to keep store prices from getting undercut by street dealers. Murphy said he’s not ruling anything out.

“We’ve not hardened a position on taxes. This is a little bit like sports betting; we want to make sure if we’re going to do it, we eliminate — to the very best of our abilities — the black market,” Murphy said. “So you don’t want to price yourself out of the market. You want to be at a level where you’re making the right kind of money off of it, so you can invest in the state that we’ve talked about.”

A 10 percent legal weed tax would rank among the nation’s lowest. Lobbyist Bill Caruso supports a tax rate in the higher range, noting, “You want to dry up the black market, but on the other hand the black market will dry up by legalization alone.”

Caruso says that’s because legal weed stores would offer variety, education and no surprises, like illegal additives. The governor also applauded a new health care deal with public worker unions that saves taxpayers almost $500 million by emphasizing generic drugs and in-network physicians. It’d cover 800,000 current and retired state and local government workers and is a long-sought political concession that eluded union foe, Gov. Chris Christie. Murphy cultivated union support.

“I believe it’s what you get when you get everybody at the table, as opposed to jam things down people’s throats. In the latter, you tend not to get good results — you create a lot of animosities and fractures. In the former, when you’re at the table — as tough as it might be in these conversations, believe me they are challenging and tough — you get better results for everybody,” said Murphy.

The governor and his education commissioner also said that while they still want to aggressively phase out the PARCC testing program, they are sensitive to lawmakers’ demands for further discussion and have not yet rescheduled a vote with the Board of Education.

“We want to make sure we get this right. I may have a strong bias, but we do want to get it right. It’s like adult use marijuana, we want to do it. We want to address the social injustices, but again, it’s got to be done right,” Murphy said.

As for pre-K expansion, the governor said the state’s now accepting applications for the second round of aid — almost $27 million.