TRENTON — Members of the Assembly budget committee skewered New Jersey's higher education secretary at a hearing Wednesday, arguing that they can't judge a proposal to overhaul the state university system without knowing the cost.
Secretary Rochelle Hendricks said "world-class" financial experts were reviewing the proposal, which would merge Rutgers-Camden into Rowan University in Glassboro and combine parts of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey with Rutgers' main campus in New Brunswick. Hendricks expects to have a cost analysis in the next few weeks.
For some, that wasn't good enough, especially when Republican Gov. Christie wanted the plan approved by July 1.
"All of these things should have been done," said Assemblyman Albert Coutinho (D., Essex). "How do you come up with a conclusion without first seeing if it's at least feasible?"
Sen. President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) is working on a bill to address the university-system overhaul, a spokesman told the Bergen County Record last week, but he offered no details about the legislation's language. Sweeney did not return requests for comment Wednesday.
Both the Senate and Assembly budget panels have balked at the idea of approving the plan on Christie's tight timeline.
Earlier this month, Sen. Paul Sarlo (D., Bergen), who chairs the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee, said it was unlikely that the higher education plan could be voted on before the state budget deadline of June 30.
Assemblyman Vincent Prieto (D., Hudson) said he was "insulted" that the administration had not reached out to the budget committees.
"I find it troubling that we can be here today, April 25, a little bit over two months away from the July 1 deadline, and we really don't know anything," he said. "We know what we read in the newspapers."
Streamlining New Jersey's universities has been discussed for years. The latest plan emerged in January when an advisory committee appointed by Christie released its final report.
The committee's plan to merge Rutgers-Camden into Rowan University has drawn protests from Rutgers-Camden students, faculty, and administration, who fear the loss of the Rutgers name will hurt the campus' reputation.
Hendricks said Wednesday that the state has been caught in the "paralysis of analysis" when it came to restructuring higher education. The time to act is now, she said.
"What are we acting on?" asked Assemblyman Gary Schaer (D., Passaic), the committee's vice chairman.
He asked why the cost of the plan was only now being worked out.
"One does not reach a conclusion and then seek to justify it," he said. "It seems to be that we're working a bit backward."
A spokesman for Hendricks did not return a call asking for more information on the financial experts reviewing the proposal.
Christie has said the merger would happen, period. He has rejected the idea of allowing Rutgers-Camden to keep its name under an alternative consortium plan.
"As Secretary Hendricks affirmed today, there will be ample opportunity for the Legislature and others to consider a well-vetted, comprehensive restructuring plan and all forthcoming due-diligence documents and analysis," Christie spokesman Michael Drewniak said. "But as we move forward, it is our hope that no one reflexively digs in their heels in opposition to a plan that is widely seen as a benefit to the entire state, not just the higher education community."
He added, "The legal mechanism for executing the restructuring can and will be in place on July 1."
Still, state political leaders and Rutgers officials were negotiating in closed-door meetings as recently as last week on a plan that would preserve Rutgers-Camden. The deal would end control of Rutgers' satellite campuses in Camden and Newark by its main campus in New Brunswick, giving the satellite campuses greater control over their finances. It also would kill the Rutgers-Camden/Rowan merger, sources close to the negotiation previously told The Inquirer.
Contact Joelle Farrell at 856-779-3237 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow on Twitter @joellefarrell.