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  • Writer's pictureJoan Bartl

Profile: The Woman Laying the Groundwork for a Public Bank in New Jersey


Joan Bartl believes taxpayer-owned financial institution would be ‘logical and practical’ because of the state’s ‘significant fiscal problems’

Who she is: Joan Bartl, state coordinator in New Jersey for the nonprofit Public Banking Institute.

Where she calls ‘home’: Bartl, who was born in Philadelphia and attended the Wharton School of Business, has been a resident of Princeton for nearly 50 years.

Why she matters: Since 2012, Bartl has been leading the effort in New Jersey to establish a public bank that would be modeled on the Bank of North Dakota, the nation’s only state-owned banking institution. The push to create a similar bank in New Jersey received a big boost last month when Phil Murphy, a Democratic candidate in New Jersey’s 2017 gubernatorial contest, outlined an economic platform that included the goal of launching a public bank here.

Bartl is also the founder and president of Payment Management, a credit-card processing company.

What is public banking? While most taxpayer funds right now are deposited in commercial banks, the mission of a taxpayer-owned bank would be to create a new financial institution in New Jersey that could hold those deposits without having to involve the commercial banks. The public bank would also eliminate the profit motive of a commercial institution, meaning taxpayer deposits could be leveraged through the writing of loans that encourage public-policy goals like building new schools or funding infrastructure repairs. And for local governments that rely heavily on revenue collected through property taxes, the public bank could become a new source of capital that could be tapped without having to pay the high fees and interest rates generally charged by big commercial banks.

How she got involved: Bartl was first drawn to the public-banking issue by a friend, Walt McRee, the Public Banking Institute’s national chairman. She read up on the topic, attended conferences, and also learned more about the Bank of North Dakota, which was founded in 1919 by North Dakota’s Legislature. Seeded with $2 million, the Bank of North Dakota now has over $270 million in capital and 168 employees. And while other states, including New Jersey, struggled during the Great Recession, North Dakota was in a much stronger position thanks to its bank.

“It just seemed like such a logical and practical concept,” Bartl said.

Why New Jersey? The public-banking idea may make a lot of sense for a state like New Jersey, which has a number of significant fiscal problems, including heavy per-capita debt, a grossly underfunded pension system and near-annual budget crises, she said.

“It became obvious that the financial situation for New Jersey was not working long-term for the people, and it was not going to get better,” Bartl said. “If we have our own bank for New Jersey, we can lend to ourselves and New Jersey can take back control of where and how the money is invested.” As an advocate for establishing what would be the first new public bank in nearly a century, she’s met with local and county officials, and some state lawmakers, to share information about public banking and gauge interest in launching one here. “We realized that everybody liked the idea,” she said.

The Murphy factor: With Gov. Chris Christie’s two terms in office coming to an end in early 2018, the Public Banking Institute has been working to provide information about the issue to candidates from both parties who’ve shown interest in running in next year’s election. Murphy, a former Goldman Sachs executive who declared in May he is running as a Democrat, met with the group in Princeton. “His ears perked up. He was so interested and kept asking us more questions,” Bartl said of that meeting.

Murphy then announced last month during an economic policy speech that if elected he would seek to establish a public bank in New Jersey. The former U.S. ambassador to Germany who has quickly become a frontrunner in the gubernatorial race said he believes the public bank could help local governments in New Jersey when they need to borrow money for capital projects. He also said during the speech delivered at the New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark that small businesses and college students could stand to benefit from a public bank. New Jersey right now deposits more than $1 billion in commercial banks, some located overseas, he said.

“It’s time to bring the money home,” Murphy said. Bartl called Murphy’s decision to include the public bank in his economic platform “very exciting and very rewarding.” She said, “It’s the right thing to do, and it’s the right time to do it.”

Latest developments: Bartl and McRee are working to get a task force started with other New Jersey stakeholders to begin establishing the mission of the state’s public bank. That will include ensuring proper safeguards are put in place to insulate the proposed bank from political interference and also requiring full transparency.

Other interests: A divorced mother of a daughter and a deceased son, Bartl has a history of social activism. She was a member of Women on Words and Images, a group that published the analysis “Sex Stereotyping in Children’s Readers” in 1972. “It took four or five years, but we changed the way girls and boys were portrayed (in the media) … That was a really powerful time in my life.”

Bartl is a longtime board member of Womanspace, a Mercer County-based nonprofit that serves individuals and families impacted by domestic and sexual violence by offering crisis intervention, emergency shelter, counseling and other services.

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