The overhaul, which Christie has yet to sign, would merge most of the University of Medicine and Dentistry into Rutgers University and would transform Rowan University and Rutgers-Camden into a sprawling new complex in South Jersey. Bleary-eyed lawmakers announced final amendments to the bill in the final week of June, days before the Legislature broke for a summer holiday.
The Rutgers-Rowan proposal aroused such ire that it came to be known as "RutRow," after the cartoon dog Scooby-Doo's signature response to trouble.
Christie, a Republican, said he set an arbitrary July 1 deadline for the plan because he thought it would atrophy if it sat too long, as past efforts have.
But critics argue that lawmakers rushed the complicated bill unnecessarily, leaving more crucial issues idling.
"Up until the final week, no one knew the financial consequences" of the higher-education overhaul, said Gordon MacInnes, president of the nonprofit research group New Jersey Policy Perspective. "That's not the way to go."
Meanwhile, a bill to raise the hourly minimum wage to $8.50 from $7.25 stalled in the Senate.
"That affects about half a million workers in New Jersey," MacInnes said. "It's too bad, because it could have started helping those workers who work at such meager wages."
Restructuring New Jersey's public colleges has long been on the Legislature's to-do list, says Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester). Supporters of the bill believe merging the state's higher-education assets will keep more residents close to home for college and will attract medical and technical research dollars.
There was no point in delaying, Sweeney said in a recent interview.
"Sen. Joe Vitale [D., Middlesex] actually had the best statement on this. He said, 'The fight we're having today we would've had six months from now, one year from now, two years from now. If you had every answer to every question, you'd still have a fight, because it's change,' " Sweeney said.
"We couldn't pass up July 1. . . . These things just fall off the face of the map," he said.
The Democrat-controlled Legislature has time to meet its goals before the session ends in January 2014, said Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D., Essex), prime sponsor of the minimum-wage bill in her chamber. She expects that the measure to be a priority when lawmakers reconvene in September.
"I feel very strongly that elevating the minimum wage is something that is needed and something that will put an immediate infusion into the local economy," she said. "It is just too difficult for minimum-wage earners to eke out an existence."
The Assembly approved the bill in May, but Christie objected to a provision that would have automatically raised the wage based on increases in the Consumer Price Index. Oliver said she was willing to forgo the inflation-triggered increases to win passage in the Senate by July 1, but Sweeney didn't post the bill for a vote.
"I really want to make sure that the working poor don't have to wait every five to seven years for a raise," Sweeney said. In 2005, the last time state lawmakers raised the minimum wage, they cut out the indexing provision, a decision Sweeney said he regretted.
But between the state budget and the higher-education bills, Sweeney said, he ran out of time to negotiate with Christie about the wage.
"The whole [higher-education] thing took a lot of energy," he said.
Another measure that fell off the voting board was a constitutional amendment that would allow judges to deny bail to violent offenders, a change Christie identified as one of his top three priorities this year.
The Senate pulled it from the voting list in the final hours of a marathon session June 28. The Assembly still must vote on the measure, which received no opposition from committees in either chamber.
Ending the practice of paying public employees for unused sick time, a pet peeve of Christie's, didn't even come up for discussion in hearings. As for teacher tenure, both chambers passed a bill that would toughen criteria for gaining tenure, but the measure didn't address the "last-in, first-out" seniority rule Christie wanted to end.
Sweeney's plan to deny state aid to municipalities that refuse to share municipal services went nowhere, despite his numbering the bill "S2" to signify its importance. He said he planned to continue work on the issue.
As for the state's earned-income tax credit, intended to help the working poor, Christie vetoed a bill that would have immediately restored it to what it was in 2010, the year he cut it to balance the budget.
In his State of the State speech in January, Christie vowed to increase the credit, but the money was not included in the fiscal 2013 budget he signed June 29.
Democrats said the issue was likely to come up again this year.
"There's a strong sentiment in both houses," Oliver said, "to increase the earned-income tax credit to elevate the economic status of low-income people."
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