One legislative panel backs Rutgers overhaul

Posted: June 16, 2012

TRENTON — A hotly debated bill to revamp New Jersey's higher education system passed its first test Thursday, getting unanimous approval from a legislative committee despite persistent questions about its potential price tag.

Sen. Donald Norcross (D., Camden), a sponsor of the bill who testified before the Higher Education Committee at the start of its hearing, said he did not know the cost but hoped to have it available Monday. That's when another panel, the Senate Budget Committee, is scheduled to hear the bill.

Asked repeatedly by some members of the panel how he could introduce legislation without knowing the cost of implementing it, Norcross said: "That's still evolving, quite simply because the plan is still evolving."

The cost is "being calculated as we speak," he added.

Opponents of the plan — which would fold much of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey into Rutgers University and break off Rutgers-Camden into a collaborative relationship with Rowan University — said pursuing it would be irresponsible without knowing the cost. Others raised concerns about the School of Osteopathic Medicine in Stratford, which is to be moved from UMDNJ to Rowan. Some of the Stratford school faculty testified they would prefer to see it affiliated with a well-known research university such as Rutgers.

Several cost estimates did emerge Thursday, but not from the bill's sponsors.

With such a significant piece of Rutgers severed, a revenue stream of tuition would be eliminated, possibly forcing all $950 million in outstanding bonds to be refinanced, a Rutgers official said in an interview. The cost of refinancing the bonds if the Rutgers-Camden campus is cut from the university would be $155 million, according to an analysis Rutgers commissioned.

Rutgers-Camden faculty, who oppose the plan, put that cost at $225 million.

But neither figure included possible other costs associated with merging the Rowan and Rutgers-Camden administrations — or reorganizing the other pieces of the higher education puzzle in North and Central New Jersey.

Sen. Ronald Rice (D., Essex), an opponent of the plan, put that cost in the billions. Rice, who delivered the most fiery testimony during the four-hour hearing, is concerned about the governance of Rutgers-Newark under the bill and the fate of University Hospital in Newark, which would be cut out from UMDNJ.

"You're being duped as a committee, and we're being duped as legislators," he said.

Rice criticized the way the bill came to be. After months of discussion, the bill was introduced just three weeks before a July 1 deadline Gov. Christie had imposed. It has already been amended and is expected to be further changed this weekend.

"There's not one Democrat … who can say we've ever had substantial, comprehensive discussion on a bill of this magnitude," Rice said. Instead, he said, decisions were made behind closed doors by South Jersey political brokers.

Rice spoke of a potential political civil war over the issue and likened the plan to the costly, failed projects of the past that have been pushed by South Jersey Democrats, like the redevelopment of the Cramer Hill neighborhood in Camden that never happened.

"Stop rubber-stamping things for governors and Senate presidents," Rice said, referring to Christie and a key bill supporter, Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester). "We're coequals. We're the voices of the people."

At a morning news conference Thursday, Christie spoke about the bill for the first time and expressed confidence it would be approved.

And after the bill was moved, Sweeney issued a news release arguing that it would enhance education and economic opportunities. The release was headlined: "This will make New Jersey a force to be reckoned with throughout the world."

But even if the bill passes and Christie signs it, the shadow of litigation hangs over it. Lora Fong, a lawyer and member of the Rutgers board of trustees, spoke about how the trustees and board of governors have autonomy based on a statute and contract dating to 1956.

In written testimony she provided the committee — but did not read — she said breaking that contract would lead to litigation.

Fong also sought to refute a major argument behind creating a, comprehensive university in South Jersey: that it would redress decades of Rutgers' New Brunswick campus absorbing the state's higher education funding. She said New Brunswick actually helps subsidize the Camden and Newark campuses.

But in keeping with the theme of the meeting, she said she did not yet have numbers to back up her claim.

For much of the hearing, only two of the committee's five members were in attendance. At some points, the chairwoman was the only senator in the room.

One committee member, Sen. Nellie Pou (D., Passaic), said she voted for the bill but had serious reservations, and she hoped that her questions about costs would be answered by Monday.

And amendments, she noted, "should be available" so legislators and the public can review them.

Though other issues came up — the relevance of the joint board overseeing Rowan and Rutgers, and the patronage jobs that could create — money remains the biggest issue.

Even a sponsor of the bill, Sen. Joseph Vitale (D., Middlesex), acknowledged in testimony: "The 800-pound gorilla is the cost of this."

Contact Matt Katz at 609-217-8355, mkatz@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @mattkatz00. Read his blog, "Christie Chronicles," at www.philly.com/ChristieChronicles.

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