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Bond referendum measure moves forward

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Legislation to invest nearly $1.3 billion into expansions and upgrades at New Jersey's higher education institutions cleared the state Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee on Monday, though more than half of the bonds would be issued only if approved by voters in November.

The $750 million bond referendum would allocate $300 million to public research universities, like Rutgers University; $247.5 million to the nine state colleges and universities; $150 million to the 19 county colleges; and $52.5 million to private schools.

A second bill seeks to authorize the Secretary of Higher Education to free up an additional $540 million in bonds that would be allocated to the universities.

But the combined funding from both bills — sponsored by Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-West Deptford) — falls short of the university presidents' request earlier this year for a $6 billion bond issue to fund the construction of 300 high-priority academic projects; Rutgers President Richard McCormick alone requested $1.5 billion for 45 academic projects, including $51 million for a food and health institute.

The legislation also seeks to allow university officials to leverage revenue from existing buildings — like dormitories — to build research centers, classrooms and other academic buildings. To entice development from the private sector, the bill would give developers the rights to colleges' revenue streams if they agree to finance the academic construction projects.

At a higher education capital construction conference earlier this month, Montclair State University President Susan Cole said the ability to form public-private partnerships for revenue-producing construction projects "was a life saver" for the school, but that the lack of such partnerships for non-revenue academic projects has attributed to the college's slow enrollment growth.

"I can't hire another science faculty member because I don't have the space," Cole said at the conference. "Our new Center for Environmental and Life Sciences is literally all designed, even without funding for it. We're ready to put the shovel in ground the minute the funding is there."

Cole said the universities were hoping for a bond worth at least $3.5 billion, noting "the state could definitely handle … half of our highest priority (projects) list right now."

In a statement, state Sen. Thomas Kean Jr. (R-Westfield) said the state's investment in college infrastructure would "reverse the brain drain of people and talent from New Jersey and bring higher education in New Jersey from good to great."

"We are going to free up hundreds of millions of dollars that can be used to build up and expand New Jersey's institutions of higher learning," Sweeney said in a statement. "This will allow us to not only keep our best and brightest right here, but also draw in students from across the country and the world."

The legislation would establish the state's first higher-education bond issue since 1988, when voters approved $350 million for capital construction projects.

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