The leader of the New Jersey Assembly is trying to block the entire list of 176 construction projects at colleges and universities across the state while she seeks answers to how decisions were made on the $1.3 billion in grants.
"... Many issues concerning the validity of the administration's specific awards in the approved project lists have come to my attention," Speaker Sheila Y. Oliver (D., Essex) wrote Tuesday to Gov. Christie. "Concerns about the process by which the 'review committee' made the selections have also been raised."
Oliver's objections are focused on $10.6 million slated for Beth Medrash Govoha, an ultra-Orthodox yeshiva in Lakewood.
"These grants may be subject to challenge under the establishment clause of the United States Constitution as a violation of the separation of church and state," reads a resolution Oliver introduced Monday to reject the statewide list, which includes $118 million for Rowan University and $357 million for Rutgers University.
A $645,323 grant to Princeton Theological Seminary, a predominantly Protestant school, also has been criticized.
Though the funding for the $1.3 billion in projects comes from five sources - each with its own rules - the core of the money comes from the $750 million Building Our Future Bond Act approved by voters in the fall.
The Legislature had 60 days from the time Secretary of Higher Education Rochelle Hendricks presented the list to reject, in full, those to be funded from the bond act, including the grant to the yeshiva.
To be invalidated, the list would have to be rejected by both houses.
"The Senate president does not support holding up 176 projects on New Jersey's college campuses because of questions regarding only two of them," Christopher Donnelly, a spokesman for Stephen M. Sweeney (D., Gloucester), said in an e-mail. "He does, however, think that the applications should be made public."
In her letter and subsequent statements, Oliver has called for information including a list of the criteria used to evaluate the applications, scored copies of every application, and final rankings of the applications.
At a news conference Wednesday, Christie dismissed Oliver's concerns as an attempt "to try to play politics," saying the applications cannot be made public while deliberations continue.
"The speaker has the right to see the applications and she's been told that weeks ago," Christie said, adding that Beth Medrash Govoha had received $46 million from the Tuition Aid Grant Program since 2000, which Oliver has never challenged. "So you can't make any sense of what she's talking about. So, you know, she's playing politics; that's fine, let her play it."
Oliver fired back that she was "posing legitimate questions" and said now that the question of tuition aid grant funding had been raised, she would be looking into the program.
"It's not my job to police the secretary of higher education," she said in an interview, adding that news of the tuition-aid funding was "making me more incensed because we have a real critical problem in this state in terms of young people being able to afford tuition. . . . That's $46 million that could have gone to students."
Beth Medrash Govoha defended itself as a recipient of state aid, including grants of $5.1 million for construction of a library and research center and $5.5 million to build an academic space.
"BMG is a not-for-profit, accredited institution of higher education that is licensed by the State of New Jersey to confer undergraduate and graduate degrees," said Moshe Gleiberman, vice president of administration. "Its mission is an educational one, with programs in fields such as Talmudic studies and Hebrew language and literature. Admissions are based on academic factors."
The resolution to reject the project list must first pass through a budget committee.
David C. Hespe, president of Burlington County College, said he would be "following the legislative approval process closely" and hoped his school's $4.6 million in projects would be approved.
Rowan, the second-largest recipient of the bond-funded grants, said it would forge ahead.
"We're not concerned that [projects] would be cut or that we'd lose funding for those buildings," said spokesman Joe Cardona. "We're confident that it'll work itself out in the end."