By Matt Katz, Inquirer Bureau
TRENTON — A hotly debated bill to revamp New Jersey’s higher education system passed its first test Thursday, getting unanimous approval from a legislative committee despite persistent questions about its potential price tag.
Students and others listen to testimony on the merger plan during the Senate committee hearing in Trenton. MEL EVANS / Associated Press
Sen. Donald Norcross (D., Camden), a sponsor of the bill who testified before the Higher Education Committee at the start of its hearing, said he did not know the cost but hoped to have it available Monday. That’s when another panel, the Senate Budget Committee, is scheduled to hear the bill.
Asked repeatedly by some members of the panel how he could introduce legislation without knowing the cost of implementing it, Norcross said: “That’s still evolving, quite simply because the plan is still evolving.”
The cost is “being calculated as we speak,” he added.
Opponents of the plan — which would fold much of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey into Rutgers University and break off Rutgers-Camden into a collaborative relationship with Rowan University — said pursuing it would be irresponsible without knowing the cost. Others raised concerns about the School of Osteopathic Medicine in Stratford, which is to be moved from UMDNJ to Rowan. Some of the Stratford school faculty testified they would prefer to see it affiliated with a well-known research university such as Rutgers.
Several cost estimates did emerge Thursday, but not from the bill’s sponsors.
With such a significant piece of Rutgers severed, a revenue stream of tuition would be eliminated, possibly forcing all $950 million in outstanding bonds to be refinanced, a Rutgers official said in an interview. The cost of refinancing the bonds if the Rutgers-Camden campus is cut from the university would be $155 million, according to an analysis Rutgers commissioned.
Rutgers-Camden faculty, who oppose the plan, put that cost at $225 million.
But neither figure included possible other costs associated with merging the Rowan and Rutgers-Camden administrations — or reorganizing the other pieces of the higher education puzzle in North and Central New Jersey.