Legislative message to Rutgers on restructuring: Take it or leave it

    The Legislature Thursday made several moves in its battle to restructure New Jersey higher education, including a legislative warning to the Rutgers’ board of trustees that the plan is all or nothing — accept all aspects of the proposal or have it voided in its entirety.

    A threat of a different sort came from a faction of Democratic Assembly members who said they were ready to derail budget proceedings unless the Assembly leadership delays its vote on restructuring until November; the treasury department released updated cost estimates; and Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) postponed a full floor vote on his chamber’s legislation until next week.

    In a vote of 27-0, Senators approved a set of amendments that most notably attaches a non-severability clause to the bill. This means that if Rutgers’ boards of trustees and governors successfully fight any aspect of the law in court (most likely, the creation of a powerful joint board to oversee a combined Rutgers-Camden/Rowan University), their action will void the entire legally sanctioned agreement to, among other things, merge most of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey into Rutgers.

    Though he hadn’t yet reviewed the amendment closely enough to determine whether this type of provision might be unconstitutional as applied to the special case of Rutgers, Adam Scales, a Rutgers-Camden law professor who sits on the steering committee for the Save Rutgers-Camden group, said, “It is, to be charitable, something of an insult. The effect is to require Rutgers to decide whether it wants to jeopardize the entire deal in order to vindicate its rights. It does not strike me as a very cooperative overture by the Legislature. Rather than thinking about how to appeal to Rutgers in order to win its consent, this is a thinly veiled threat.”

    Rutgers has hired a high-profile constitutional attorney to represent trustees and governors if the bill as passed fails to reflect a set of principles the university’s governing bodies are using to guide them philosophically through the legislative process. In a sign that the institution may need to flex its legal muscle, other amendments approved last night did not materially alter the authority of the proposed Rutgers-Camden/Rowan governing board that forms the basis for Rutgers’ main objection.

    Still, Rutgers did enjoy a small victory in the form of an amendment that contains a two-year “hold harmless” clause that guarantees the state will absorb unforeseeable liability costs that could befall Rutgers if it appropriates UMDNJ.

    Because these amendments were distributed to members of the Senate yesterday, Sweeney postponed a vote on the bill until Monday at the earliest.

    However, the process won’t go so smoothly in the Assembly. In move that some political observers expect will succeed in halting further action on the Assembly bill this legislative session, a coalition of North Jersey democrats led by Rep. Joe Cryan (D-Union) released a letter they sent this week to Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-East Orange) pledging to withhold support for the appropriations bill that’s being urgently considered by the budget committee in advance of a possible government shutdown at the end of this month. Saying that too many questions linger as to the bill’s cost to taxpayers, its effects on the debts of Newark’s University Hospital, and the impact it could have on tuition, the group demanded special hearings over the summer and fall, with a vote to be scheduled after Election Day.

    “There’s no doubt this restructuring will have a financial impact on the state for years to come,” said Cryan. “Clearly this bill hasn’t been vetted.”

    Rep. Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-Englewood), who also signed the letter, added, “I believe in the concept of restructuring. But we cannot support the governor’s timetable. We can get this right and should take the time to do so.”

    Gov. Chris Christie, who appointed the task force that recommended the restructuring in January, has insisted the matter be settled by July 1. But it was determined in the Senate this week that restructuring — whatever form it takes — would not be implemented until July 1, 2013. No official action has been taken or scheduled for the Assembly bill in either the higher education or budget committees, and Cryan said Oliver told him she’d take his group’s request “under advisement.”

    Assembly budget committee chair Vincent Prieto (D-Secaucus), a primary sponsor of the bill, told reporters that leadership remains confident the budget bill will have enough votes to pass.

    Concerns over the legislation’s unknown price tag did not seem to abate with the release yesterday of a “fiscal note” prepared by the treasury department containing cost estimates that have been updated to reflect the version of the bill as passed by the Senate budget committee on Monday. The memo downplays the costs of the restructuring by highlighting opportunities for savings and the pace at which costs would be absorbed; for example, operations at UMDNJ as it merges into Rutgers. “The operations of UMDNJ . . . will merge in full by transitioning organically to Rutgers University at what is reasonable to expect to be little or no extra cost beyond what the State, historically, appropriates to the institutions on an annual basis.”

    News media took little notice of the memo’s updated projections, and Scales, after criticizing it for a lack of sourcing, analysis, or proof, observed, “I don’t see the other side resuscitating their argument with this document. It’s not like you saw anyone waving it around today.”

    The speed with which the bills are moving has rankled some elected officials, most notably Sen. Ron Rice (D-Essex), who has repeatedly called for the legislative leadership to hold the bill and complained that his county’s delegation was being left out of negotiations. He expressed cautious optimism over yesterday’s events, saying that Oliver, a fellow Essex County politician, had begun discussing amendments regarding the proposed restructuring of UMDNJ with Sweeney and representatives from Christie’s office.

    “We think finally we’re in the conversation,” he said. “We’re doing better. If only we would slow down.”

    Cosponsors of the Senate bill were unavailable for comment on this story.


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