TRENTON — A far-reaching plan to overhaul New Jersey’s higher-education system will be heard in the Assembly, though a faction of Democrats asked that the fast-moving legislation be delayed.
The Assembly Budget Committee will hear the bill Monday, along with a companion measure that would ask voters to approve $750 million in borrowing for higher education.
The announcement came a day after nine Democrats led by former Majority Leader Joe Cryan threatened to withhold their votes for the state budget unless Speaker Sheila Oliver delays the merger bill. The members of the faction told Oliver in a letter that they don’t oppose the university overhaul per se but feel its costs and effect on students have not been fully assessed. They want the vote delayed until after the November election.
The Senate was set to vote on the bill Thursday but stalled the tally until at least Monday. The bill was rushed through two Senate panels in less than a week; its budget committee approved the measure without knowing its costs.
“This issue is an important one for our future, and is one that has been debated at length throughout our state,” Oliver said in a statement Friday. “The legislation has seen many changes to make it better, and I think it’s important for the legislative discussion to continue. I look forward to hearing Monday’s testimony as we weigh the next steps in this vital discussion.”
The plan combines Rutgers-Camden and Rowan University and transfers most of the University of Medicine and Dentistry, including about $500 million in debt, to Rutgers. Rowan gets UMDNJ’s osteopathy school in the deal; the medical school’s teaching hospital, University Hospital in Newark, would continue to operate as a nonprofit organization.
Proponents of the higher-education restructuring include Gov. Chris Christie, who proposed a version of it in January, South Jersey Democratic leader George Norcross III and Senate President Stephen Sweeney, a Norcross ally and a sponsor of the bill.
They say the overhaul will increase educational opportunities in fast-growing South Jersey focused around a health-sciences curriculum. Rowan gained a medical school in partnership with Cooper University Hospital in 2009. Norcross is chairman of Cooper’s board; his brother, Donald, is another of the bill’s sponsors.
Opponents include Rutgers’ governing boards, which object to their loss of authority over the Camden and Newark campuses. The bill calls for new trustee boards at each site, and it creates an oversight board with authority over Rutgers-Camden and Rowan.
Board members maintain their authority over any of the Rutgers campuses cannot be taken away. The trustee board has hired a constitutional expert to fight the legislation.
Candice Straight, who sits on Rutgers’ Board of Governors, voiced concern about the amount of UMDNJ debt Rutgers could assume, saying tuition would increase 15 percent for each $100 million in debt.
Proponents and opponents disagree over whether existing debt would have to be refinanced, and at what cost. A fiscal memo from the Legislature’s research arm says the costs will be borne primarily by Rutgers, Rowan and University Hospital, the state’s largest charity-care provider.
University Hospital has $110 million in outstanding bond debt, with debt service costs of $6.7 million. The hospital may not be able to support such debt without additional state support, the Office of Legislative Services says.