Assembly Dem faction: Slow university merger

Associated Press

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — Nine Democrats in the Assembly tried to slow fast-moving legislation to overhaul New Jersey's higher education system on Thursday by threatening to tie up adoption of a new state budget unless the university reorganization plan is delayed.

Senate President Steve Sweeney, meanwhile, put off Thursday's scheduled Senate vote on the university merger bill he's sponsoring, while proponents insisted the delay in the Senate had nothing to do with the defection in the Assembly. The Senate took up amendments to the legislation late Thursday, but delayed a vote on the far-reaching plan at least until Monday.

No Assembly hearings have been scheduled.

Former Assembly Majority Leader Joe Cryan and eight North Jersey colleagues put their objections to the pace at which the merger bill was being rushed through the Legislature in writing, asking Speaker Sheila Oliver to hold the measure until its costs and other impacts can be assessed. The plan is not set to take effect until July of next year.

"The debate on the proposal has been limited, held mostly behind closed doors, and without serious independent review," the letter states. "There are still too many unanswered questions."

Cryan and company, including Assemblywomen Connie Wagner of Bergen County and Mila Jasey of Essex County, don't oppose the restructuring plan per se, but want a more complete accounting of its costs and potential impact on students and faculty.

"We believe if we handle this bill right, if we do it right, it could potentially pass unanimously — there's an open mind," said Cryan. "However, the budget is where the leverage is and we shouldn't move on the budget until we have a commitment that we're not going to move the higher ed bill."

The legislation combines Rutgers-Camden and Rowan University and folds most of the University of Medicine and Dentistry into Rutgers. It creates a new joint oversight board with authority over the schools, which both administrations oppose. It gives UMDNJ's osteopathy school to Rowan; UMDNJ's teaching hospital, which is the state's largest charity care provider, would continue to operate as a nonprofit.

The bill was rushed through two Senate committees in less than a week. The Senate Budget Committee approved it Monday without knowing its costs.

The Treasury Department has since produced a 12-page fiscal estimate that anticipates long-term savings from the plan, and notes that the colleges involved will spread out whatever debt they inherit over several years. The Christie administration estimate finds further savings by refinancing the inherited UMDNJ debt.

The Treasury estimate concludes that Rowan and Rutgers won't have to refund bonds after they combine in a quasi-merger, but the Rutgers' governing boards disagree.

Candice Straight, a member of the Board of Governors, told lawmakers on Monday that tuition would be raised 15 percent for every $100 million in debt Rutgers assumes. The medical/dental school comes with about $500 million in debt.

One of the amendments offered Thursday makes the deal an all-or-nothing proposition for Rutgers, meaning the deal won't go through piecemeal.

The trustees have retained a high-powered constitutional lawyer to fight the plan, which reduces their authority over the Camden and Newark campuses.

Supporters of the restructuring say it will increase educational opportunities in fast-growing South Jersey with a new curriculum focused in the health sciences.

Rowan gained a medical school in 2009 in partnership with Cooper University Hospital. The restructuring bill gives Rowan status as a research university, which elevates its ability to attract federal and state grants.

Supporters of the proposal include Gov. Chris Christie and powerful South Jersey Democratic leader George Norcross III. Norcross is chairman of the board of Cooper University Hospital; his brother, Donald, is a sponsor of the bill.

The Senate also delayed a vote on a companion bill that asks voters to approve $750 million in borrowing for buildings and upgrades at colleges and universities. It would be the first higher education bond act in 20 years.