ANGELA DELLI SANTI,Associated Press
TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — A legal memo from legislative researchers leaves no doubt that a far-reaching plan to overhaul New Jersey's higher education system cannot be implemented without approval from Rutgers University's governing boards.
The memo obtained by The Associated Press concludes that a 1956 law establishing the state university is a contract between the state and Rutgers, and changing it requires the parties' approval.
That opinion is contrary to an earlier analysis conducted by proponents that found Rutgers' trustees — among the most vocal opponents of the plan — would be unable to block the merger between the Camden campus and Rowan University.
The proposal breaks up the University of Medicine and Dentistry, transferring it to Rutgers and Rowan and establishing a regional health sciences university in South Jersey. Rowan would be granted the status of a research university, which elevates it for state and federal funding and gives it more independence than a public college to award contracts.
Legislators seemed to accept the Office of Legislative Services' analysis. Assemblyman John Wisniewski, a sponsor of the university restructuring bill, told colleagues Monday night at an Assembly Budget Committee hearing on the bill, "this legislation goes nowhere" without sign-off from the Rutgers trustees and Board of Governors.
The two boards have affirmed their opposition to the legislation if it diminished their authority over the Camden or Newark campus. As presently configured, the bill removes financial and oversight authority, particularly at Camden, which would be funded separately and overseen by a new governing board.
The trustees have retained a high-powered constitutional expert and have threatened to sue. The legislative memo appears to give them standing.
"It would be one of the stupidest acts ever undertaken by a state legislature to pass a law that it knows is unconstitutional and that will without a doubt be stricken down in federal court," said Andy Shankman, a history professor at Rutgers-Camden who leads a faculty group opposed to a Rowan takeover.
The bill is set for final votes Thursday, after being fast-tracked through the Legislature. It sped through Assembly and Senate committees in about a week, skipping a hearing in the Assembly Higher Education panel, despite proponents' claims that it will revamp higher education by giving Rutgers a long-sought medical school and creating a regional academic health sciences hub in South Jersey.
No one knows how much it will cost.
Former Assembly Democratic Leader Joe Cryan, now on the outs with party leadership, tried to stall the vote by rounding up eight colleagues and threatening to withhold Democratic votes for the state budget unless the merger bill was delayed till November. The coalition quickly crumbled, though, and the budget passed easily.
"Residents across the state have said they don't want this massive restructuring to happen without having a chance to actually receive and analyze details, and now our own lawyers are telling us that this action is illegal," Cryan said. "Moving forward is going to get the state sued, and cost taxpayers even more substantial dollars. We need to stop this now."
Meanwhile, proponents of the plan were considering last-minute changes to the measure Wednesday that would help solidify support before final votes are taken.
Legislative leaders met with representatives of the governor's office, presumably to discuss additional amendments.
Republican Gov. Chris Christie and Democratic Party leader George Norcross III both support the plan. They bring votes from Republicans and South Jersey Democrats, though it was uncertain Wednesday night exactly how many Republicans and Democrats would be on board.
Amendments that help protect University Hospital, UMDNJ's money-losing teaching hospital and the state's largest provider of care to poor people who aren't insured, have shored up support from Essex County lawmakers, including Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver. Organized labor also backed the plan once employee protections were added to the legislation. Now, merger-related layoffs are guaranteed not to occur for a year after the plan is implemented in July 2013.
Legislators are expected to approve a companion measure asking voters to approve $750 million in higher education borrowing. The money would be used to fund capital projects at all New Jersey colleges and universities. The largest chunk — $300 million — would be divided among the state's research universities.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.