TRENTON – Among the unresolved issues following Monday’s joint legislative hearing into the proposed Rowan/Rutgers-Camden merger is one of authority.
The issue of whether the Executive or Legislative branch of state government controls the reorganization process in higher education divides experts.
Gov. Chris Christie, who supports the merger proposal, reiterated Tuesday at a press conference his unwillingness to compromise on the reorganization, and said it would create a major research university and economic engine for South Jersey.
Yet at a joint legislative hearing Monday held at Rowan in Glassboro, several witnesses told the state lawmakers the legislature – not the Executive branch – would have the final say.
Timothy Farrow, the Rutgers Alumni Association treasurer and an opponent of the merger, told legislators he believes a 1994 Act and a 2012 court decision bolster that opinion.
He said the 1994 legislative restructuring of higher education specifically created a hierarchy so that an institution such as Rutgers would not be subject to a gubernatorial reorganization and could have a stronger say in its own fate.
“They are most equipped to do that,’’ Farrow said. “They are the experts on it.’’
In addition, he believes the ruling earlier this year by the courts that overturned the governor’s decision to abolish the Council on Affordable Housing can be used to prevent the governor’s forced merger of Rowan and Rutgers-Camden.
“That now is precedent,’’ he said.
However, not everyone agrees. First, Gov. Christie has made it clear that the COAH ruling will be appealed.
Second, an act that predates the 1994 Higher Education Restructuring Act may hold the reins, according to one attorney.
The Executive Reorganization Act of 1969 is what matters in this case, says attorney William Harla.
“Rutgers is an instrumentality of the state, of the Executive Branch, funded in part by state appropriations,” he said. “As such, it is fully subject to the governor’s wide ranging authority, conferred on him by the Legislature by law, to reorganize state government, just as Governor Corzine did when he used his reorganization powers to move some functions of UMDNJ to Rowan University in 2009.”No new, separate statute is necessary to reorganize Rutgers and Rowan.”
Rutgers became an instrumentality of the state in a 1956 compact when Rutgers became the official state university, Harla said.
He pointed out that the Legislature does have a role in the process – the power to disapprove of a reorganization plan – but the governor maintains the power to affect agencies of the Executive branch.
In regards to the COAH case, he believes there is a key difference in that the governor was seeking to abolish an agency outright, whereas with Rowan/Rutgers-Camden he is merely transferring functions.
“The governor is allowed to move to transfer agencies that are of the Executive branch,” Harla said.
But Ed Rentezelas, of Rutgers Law School, said he believes the COAH ruling can’t be ignored.
“I haven’t seen anyone who says the case doesn’t mean anything for this discussion,’’ he said. “The arguments can be transferred over to a case like this.’’
“This is a unique situation,’’ he said.
Even some of the legislators are unsure who gets the final say. At Monday’s hearing, more than once, lawmakers expressed uncertainty over the procedure and protocol.
Celeste Riley, (D-3), Salem, said at Monday’s hearing that “We have been told that this reorganization could be done by the governor. Then we were told no, it comes through the Legislature. I still don’t have one firm answer on what’s going to happen.”
Earlier this month the interim head of the University of Medicine and Dentistry, Denise Rodgers, told lawmakers that Christie may use an executive order to accomplish the reorganization by July 1, the beginning of the fiscal year.
When asked about that timetable after Rodgers made that statement, the governor’s office issued a statement that there remained a lot to work on and they would continue to work with the schools and the Legislature.