TRENTON — A far-reaching plan to reconfigure Rutgers, Rowan and the University of Medicine and Dentistry is being rushed to the Senate floor for a vote Thursday, having been sped through two legislative panels in less than a week and despite lingering questions about its costs.
The measure emerged from the Senate Budget Committee by a 12-0 vote with one abstention late Monday after a day of behind-the-scenes negotiations on the ambitious plan, which would impact higher education in Camden, New Brunswick and Newark.
A companion measure asking voters to approve $750 million in borrowing for new buildings and upgrades on the state’s campuses also advanced. It would be the first higher education bond issue for capital projects in more than 20 years.
The university restructuring bill was released unanimously by the Senate Higher Education Committee on Thursday. The Assembly is expected to take it up next week.
The legislation creates a quasi-merger between Rowan and Rutgers-Camden and transfers most of the University of Medicine and Dentistry to Rutgers. The School of Osteopathic Medicine in Stratford would go to Rowan, which was granted a medical school in 2009 in partnership with Cooper University Hospital in Camden. University Hospital in Newark, the state’s largest charity care provider, would continue to operate as a nonprofit.
Though Sen. Donald Norcross, a bill co-sponsor, said last week the budget panel could expect a fiscal estimate for the plan by Monday, even proponents of the measure had a tough time putting a price tag on it during the hearing.
Andrew Hendry, executive director of the Senate Democratic office, downplayed the costs, saying Rutgers’ estimate of $40 million to $50 million was “on the high side.” However, he said he could not provide a dollar amount for combining the schools.
Candice Straight, a member of the Rutgers Board of Governors, expressed concern over the roughly $500 million in UMDNJ debt that would be absorbed by Rutgers. She said tuition would have to be increased by 15 percent to cover every $100 million in losses.
“I do not want to finance this transaction on the backs of students and their families,” she said.
She also said applications to Rutgers-Camden law school had nose-dived amid the uncertainty the proposal had caused there.
Others questioned whether Rutgers’ credit rating, which is stronger than UMDNJ’s, might suffer as a result of taking on the medical school’s debt.
Proponents said there would be no financial impact in the upcoming year because the plan is being delayed until July 2013. However, the universities will be expected to bear the administrative and debt-refinancing costs of the merger, since no additional state appropriation is planned.
Cost estimates have been awaited since Gov. Chris Christie proposed the plan in January.
Labor unions representing 30,000 workers from all the unions affected by the plan signed off Monday, though a few sticking points remain. Union negotiator Jean Pierce, of the Health Professionals and Allied Employees, said labor is “98 percent” satisfied with bill changes that add collective bargaining and job protections and help ensure that the money-losing University Hospital remains viable. Concerns remain about the hospital’s long-term fiscal health and about the ultimate authority being given to a new Rowan/Rutgers-Camden governing board.
Rutgers’ governing boards oppose ceding oversight of any of its campuses. The Rutgers trustees have retained a high-powered constitutional lawyer to fight the loss of autonomy at Camden. The legislation as drafted calls for the Camden and Newark campuses to be overseen by new eight-member governing boards.
Restructuring proponents envision broader educational opportunities in South Jersey, especially in the health sciences. They include the Republican governor; Democratic Party leader George E. Norcross III, whose brother is Donald Norcross; and Democratic Senate President Steve Sweeney. George Norcross, a managing partner of the company that owns The Philadelphia Inquirer, is Cooper’s chairman.
The one abstention came from Sen. Nellie Pou, who said she had not been satisfied with the incomplete financial picture that had been drawn. Three other Democrats expressed reservations about the unanswered fiscal questions but voted to release the bill from committee anyway.