Legislature sends college-affordability bill back to Christie

Posted: May 24, 2014

The New Jersey Legislature on Thursday again sent Gov. Christie a bill to create a panel to study and address college affordability - an idea the governor rejected in January.

The Assembly voted unanimously Thursday for the bill, the brainchild of Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester). The Senate passed the measure last week.

"I didn't think that there was going to be any issue with it. I'm happy," said Assemblywoman Celeste Riley (D., Salem), who sponsored the bill this session and last.

Christie vetoed a similar bill last legislative session, calling it "redundant."

The legislation would give a 12-member committee a year to study a series of proposals, including the creation of a "Pay It Forward, Pay It Back" program eliminating tuition at public colleges in return for a percentage of college graduates' incomes. Other ideas include creating an accelerated medical, science, and engineering degree program, and discounted tuition for students who spend two years at community colleges before transferring to a four-year institution.

Riley, Sweeney, and other legislators heaped praise on the proposal months ago, when it was approved unanimously in November by the Senate and in December by the Assembly.

But Christie said no.

"Quite simply, the proposed work of the commission is redundant of current efforts underway by the Secretary of Higher Education" and the Higher Education Student Assistance Authority, he wrote in his Jan. 13 veto message.

In statements issued that day, Riley called the veto "truly disconcerting," and Sweeney vowed to reintroduce the bill.

The governor's explanation that New Jersey already was examining affordability didn't sit well with Sweeney, the senator said Thursday.

"It's really not going to cost you money to put smart people in a room to try to figure something out," Sweeney said. "His explanation didn't work for me. And that's why I went back and spoke to him and said, 'Look, I'm coming back with this.' "

Sweeney said he had discussed the commission with Christie, but "there have been no promises, but I'm hopeful that we can come to an agreement on this also, because it's common sense."

A spokesman for Christie said the governor would "closely scrutinize this bill, like any other."

John S. Wisniewski (D., Middlesex), the deputy speaker of the Assembly and one of the bill's sponsors, on Thursday criticized what he called Christie's "absence of leadership" in vetoing the bill last time.

"The governor is not addressing college affordability," Wisniewski said. "The fact that the governor vetoes something doesn't mean we shouldn't continue to address the issue."

Testifying at a Senate committee in January, Secretary of Higher Education Rochelle Hendricks said her office was examining affordability.

"We are doing a deep dive," she said then. "We're working . . . to better understand it. I'm hoping that within the next few months, if not sooner, that we'll be able to share some of those outcomes and findings with this committee."

Pressed by the committee's chair, Sen. Sandra Cunningham (D., Hudson), about whether that meant Hendricks had her own panel, the secretary said she had "an information commission."

"And the question is, how formal do we want to make it, and at what point in time?" she said.

Riley and Sweeney said they hoped the governor would give the bill a second look, noting that the veto came as an onslaught of end-of-session legislation was passed and that the governor was distracted by the George Washington Bridge scandal.

"There were a lot of things that he was going through at the time," Riley said. "This is something that he can possibly look at again, maybe with a different set of circumstances. . . . Hopefully, he'll think it's a good idea this time."


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