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Building Block?

A virtually single-handed legal crusade waged by a small-town mayor against a massive school construction program in New Jersey received a shot in the arm last week.

A state superior court judge scheduled an emergency hearing for Jan. 19 to decide whether to stop the bond sale for the facilities program until it can be put on the statewide ballot for voter approval.

Steve Lonegan, the mayor of the Bergen County town of Bogota, filed a lawsuit late last month against the state and its bond-selling authorities, contending that the state constitution's debt-limitation clause grants taxpayers the right to vote on long-term borrowing.

Mr. Lonegan said he had not planned to target school construction, but the state's $8.6 billion plan happened to be best example of such debt.

"Why not put it on the ballot for voters?'' he said. "It's only a matter of a few extra months."

A spokesman for Gov. Christine Todd Whitman said the state would fight to keep what he called the nation's most ambitious school construction plan on track. Officials hope to sell the first round of bonds next month.

"It is an incredibly important program, and we will do everything we can to make sure it is part of Governor Whitman's education legacy," said Pete McDonough, a spokesman for the GOP governor, whom President- elect Bush has tapped to head the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The construction plan, enacted six months ago, is an outgrowth of a finance-equity lawsuit.

Mr. Lonegan, a conservative Republican, said he has raised about $15,000 for legal bills so far through a Web site he set up,

Paul L. Tractenberg, a professor of law at Rutgers University in Newark, said it was hard to say whether the case poses a serious threat to the program.

"The politics of an enterprise that big are pretty complicated to unwind at this point," he said. "But some very well-respected people have said they do not think this is a frivolous case."

—Lisa Fine

Vol. 20, Issue 16, Page 20

Published in Print: January 10, 2001, as State Journal

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