This year, the issue is equally dramatic: the biggest restructuring of New Jersey's higher-education system in more than a half-century.
Like the benefits overhaul, the university proposal is complex. Driven in part by unelected political power brokers and put together behind closed doors, it reveals fissures between North and South Jersey, between Assembly and Senate Democrats.
And like last year's bill, it is moving down the legislative turnpike at breakneck speed. Supporters hope to push it through legislative deliberation to a vote within three weeks.
The bill folds most of the troubled University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey into Rutgers University — although a change late last week would send the UMDNJ School of Osteopathic Medicine in Stratford to Rowan University. More changes are expected in the 100-page "working document" in coming days.
The bill would sever most of Rutgers' satellite campuses' ties with the main Rutgers campus in New Brunswick and put Rutgers-Camden under two new boards: one that controls its campus and one that controls both it and Rowan.
It would give the governor, with advice from the Senate president (currently Democrat Stephen Sweeney of Gloucester County), direct appointment power over multiple members of both boards.
"If this isn't an invitation to cronyism," Camden expert and Rutgers-Camden professor Howard Gilette wrote on his blog last week, "I can't think of a better possibility."
Suspicion has arisen in Rutgers-Camden circles because the bill is fueled by a power dynamic that has defined the Christie era: the Republican governor and South Jersey Democrats, unofficially led by George Norcross III, chairman of Cooper University Hospital, and his friend Sweeney.
Cooper is opening a Camden medical school with Rowan in the fall, and that school would find itself part of a much larger university if this bill passes.
Norcross, a managing partner of the company that owns The Inquirer, dismisses critics. He has fought for years for more resources in South Jersey, he says, and has grown tired of how the main Rutgers campus absorbs disproportionate resources.
And so this bill, proponents say, will result in a 20,000-student-strong consortium of higher education in South Jersey, with law, engineering, and medical schools. And Rutgers-Camden will get its own line item in the governor's budget (one explanation for the haste to complete the deal before the next fiscal year begins).
The rushed pace is in the politicians' DNA because June traditionally is when the deals get done in Trenton. A long summer break traditionally follows, and by fall the presidential election will consume everyone's attention.
And next year? Forget about it. Every politico knows transactional politics are too difficult in a gubernatorial election year.
Still, several Democrats said the June 30 deadline, initially imposed by Christie, was political and unnecessary.
In a sign of what may come, last year's deal on the benefits overhaul among the Senate Democrats, Assembly Democrats, and Christie wasn't announced until June 15. The bill was signed two weeks later.
The key holdout then was Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D., Essex), which ultimately helped her score a major concession. Similarly, this year she has yet to publicly announce support of the higher-education bill.
Oliver is aligned with North Jersey Democrats who are friendly with Christie and cooperative with South Jersey Democrats, but she also oversees a restive caucus of Assembly members, a few of whom may be gunning for her position.
Likewise, Oliver must balance regional concerns. Even as political power brokers massed a show of support for the bill last week — former Govs. Donald DiFrancesco and Jim Florio sent unsolicited supportive statements — the only statements of dissent came from Democratic legislators in the north.
U.S. Rep. Robert Andrews, in an interview with The Inquirer on Friday, became the only prominent South Jersey Democrat to publicly oppose the bill, joining Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D., N.J.) in dissent.
"Based upon what I have heard from people in the Rutgers community, the bill doesn't meet the criteria I would need to support it," Andrews said.
He has concerns about designated funding for Rowan and Rutgers-Camden, and employees' collective-bargaining agreements.
Andrews' wife, Camille Spinello Andrews, is an associate dean at Rutgers-Camden School of Law.
"I'm emphatically not saying that these can't be resolved," he said.
The question, then, is whether Christie will compromise.
Since announcing the plan in January, Christie has been confident that it will succeed — because "it's me," he said. And he has repeatedly stressed that he would not alter his original plan, which had Rowan taking over Rutgers-Camden and eliminating the Rutgers-Camden name.
Last year, Christie did compromise on the benefits overhaul. But his involvement in the Rutgers bill has been less public. Unlike the benefits overhaul, which translates well to national conservative audiences, folding Rutgers-Camden into Rowan was never one of his key objectives.
Still, sources say his chief of staff, Kevin O'Dowd, has recently been involved in negotiations, and there are enough remnants of his original plan that he could sign the bill and score it a victory.
If the bill passes, however, the current Rutgers Board of Trustees or Board of Governors could challenge it in court, leaving it to Christie's lawyers to defend.
Christie has yet to publicly comment on the Democrats' Rutgers bill. His press secretary released a statement commending Sweeney and "looking forward" to working with him "to achieve this reorganization by June 30."
While Christie continues to do a victory lap on the benefits bill — he mentioned it Friday in a speech in Chicago — Democrats wouldn't necessarily let him take credit for university restructuring. They plan to own this one.
"Clearly this is in a large sense a capitulation on the governor's part," said Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D., Middlesex), a bill sponsor. "It's very different from what he was looking for. It means he changed his mind."
He added: "He had a line in the sand on this issue and that line in the sand has gotten washed away."
Contact Matt Katz at 609-217-8355 or email@example.com, or follow on Twitter @mattkatz00. Read his blog, "Christie Chronicles," at www.philly.com/ChristieChronicles.
Staff writer James Osborne contributed to this article.