The Star-Ledger

Colleges, Health Aid Take Hit In New Budget

The Star-Ledger — Monday, June 15, 2009

BY JOHN REITMEYER AND TOM DAVIS
STATE HOUSE BUREAU

New Jersey's colleges and universities are unsure about new mandated caps on tuition increases and possible employee furloughs now included in a state budget bill that cleared legislative committees Monday.

Lawmakers voted along party lines with one exception: The only Democrat to oppose the budget was Sen. Joseph Vitale, D-Middlesex, who complained that the state's FamilyCare program was unfairly cut.

Vitale said his "no" vote "speaks for the tens of thousands of people" who are poor.

"If this cut stands, there will be a lack of health care access for many," he said.

The bill approved Monday was only made public Saturday morning and included new measures calling on colleges and universities that receive public aid to cap in-state tuition and fee hikes at 3 percent. The colleges and universities are also being required to institute employee furloughs, a wage freeze or some other cost-savings measure similar to what the state is seeking from its employees.

Officials at Rutgers University, where tuition for this school year hit $11,540 for full-time students — an 8-percent rise over the previous year — offered little information Monday on the proposals, which appears headed for final approval in the Assembly and Senate on Thursday.

"It would be premature to speculate about the possible impact of this proposed legislation," said university spokesman Greg Trevor. "In these difficult financial times, we will work with the leadership in Trenton to ensure that Rutgers students continue to have access to an affordable, outstanding education."

Ramapo College President Peter Mercer said the school would abide by the 3 percent cap on tuition and academic fees, but was leaving open the option of having students pay a separate fee for pressing capital projects, such as repairs to the library roof and the air conditioning and heating system.

Mercer said he hoped savings could be achieved without mandatory furloughs, which he said were "too disruptive."

Ed Weil, provost at William Paterson University, said the school's board of trustees would reconvene on June 27 to reconsider its decision to raise tuition by 5 percent. The school approved the hike in May and, even with it, President Arnold Speert had said employees would need to take 10 furlough days during the winter and spring breaks to help cover budget shortfalls.

On Monday, Weil said both the tuition increase and the furloughs would be revisited now that there was more direction and information from Trenton.

The new requirements for colleges and universities were among several additions lawmakers made to the $28.6 billion spending plan put forward earlier by Governor Corzine.

The Legislature's version of the budget also will open up cities and towns that receive special state aid to audits conducted by state Comptroller Matthew Boxer, who is a former federal prosecutor.

Lawmakers, however, also made some subtractions from the new budget, including eliminating proposals that would have established co-payments for about 7,500 AIDS/HIV patients and 418,000 Medicaid recipients.

Republicans, meanwhile, complained about new hardships on the taxpayers. If approved, the budget would eliminate property tax rebates for all but seniors and disabled residents. It also would raise income taxes for wealthy earners, and it seeks higher levies on cigarettes, wine and hard alcohol.

"This budget is balanced squarely on the back of middle class," said Sen. Anthony Bucco, R-Morris.

But Senate Budget Committee Chair Barbara Buono, D-Middlesex, complimented the Corzine administration for taking steps to prevent the state's fiscal situation from becoming worse in the middle of global recession.

Buono said New Jersey "rose to the occasion" last year by proposing a tight budget.

"Our responsible budgeting last year put us in good stead," she said. "The fiscal discipline in last year year's budget has spared New Jerseyans even more pain" this year.

The Assembly Budget Committee voted 8-4 to approve the budget, with all Republicans opposing the bill and each Democrat supporting it. The Senate committee vote was much closer, 8-7.

Earlier Monday, Republican lawmakers put forward a series of changes they would make, including $783.2 million in proposed spending cuts.

Health care officials praised the removal of the proposed co-payments.

"We see in this budget, rather than an axe, a scalpel being taken to this budget," said Ev Liebman, program director for New Jersey Citizen Action.

Business lobbyists credited the funding that forestalls a higher payroll tax, but they also warned trouble looms for future years if federal aid and one-shot revenue fixes that were used to balance the new budget aren't renewed.

"Substantial cuts in spending have to occur between now and next year," said Arthur Maurice, vice president of the New Jersey Business and Industry Association.

If the budget clears both houses of the Legislature on Thursday, it goes to Corzine's desk nearly two weeks in advance of the state constitution's June 30 deadline for a balanced budget.

Staff writers Pat Alex, Leslie Brody and Elise Young contributed.

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