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Can Trenton Find Funding for Higher Education Facilities?

Christie and new Senate committee agree that college infrastructure gets failing grade.

The physical condition and capacity of many of New Jersey's public colleges and universities has long been a sore spot for the state. Its last general obligation bond on the schools' behalf was in 1988 for $350 million.

"That's a long time ago, and a lot of buildings are crumbling since," said former Gov. Thomas Kean, who was in office at the time and last year led a task force calling for the state's help.

Now, the prospect of state investment -– or at least a voter referendum on it -- may be growing.

Gov. Chris Christie last week said that funding for higher education facilities would be a priority of the coming year, and legislative leaders agreed there has been new talk on the topic.

There's also a new Senate committee devoted specifically to colleges and universities, which will give higher education a higher profile in the Statehouse.

The committee meets for the first time this morning, and its chairwoman -- state Sen. Sandra Cunningham (D-Hudson) -- said she is sure that funding needs will be high on the list of concerns.

Christie seems to agree.

"To get capital money out to the universities, that will be our first goal, and I hope we can get that done this year," the governor said at a town hall meeting in Irvington on Thursday.

"I think we can get that done this year, I really do," he said.

What form that assistance will take is still to be determined, and the governor's office did not provide any additional information on whether it would be a bond, revolving fund, or some other financing.

It is also not the first time there has been early talk and even some momentum for facilities help in recent years. A task force in 2003 made a similar recommendation, only to see the referendum never happen. A bill calling for a $2.7 billion bond has long languished in the legislature. The governor also has always said it would depend on the state's fiscal condition

But state Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-Essex) said there had been talks with the governor's office about the possibility of a bond referendum, although no precise price tag had yet been settled on.

"That is something we want to commit to doing this year," she said.

And Christie said this time was different, acknowledging that the state recently has had an "awful record on higher education." He did not excuse himself from the list, either, citing his own cuts to state funding for colleges in his first year in office.

"Governors of both parties have done this, because it is seen as an easy place to cut," Christie said. "I'm not saying you want to, but it became easier and easier because it was done by the last guy."

"It's just a political reality, and I'm trying to turn that around," he said.

Advocates for the schools said all the recent talk of increased funding was welcome, although they too said there are few details to comment specifically about. Kean's task force last year, appointed by Christie, put the facilities needs at nearly $6 billion according to 2005 assessments.

"We're certainly happy to hear the governor talk about it, and look forward to working with his office on the details," said Michael Klein, chief executive of the New Jersey Association of State Colleges and Universities. "The need is clear and well-documented, and it has been talked about for years."

"The financial needs of higher education have not been addressed as they had in the past," said Cunningham. "Anything we can do for them is a big boost, and the governor saying kind words about it is a great boost. Having him on board is a big step in getting it done."

Most agreed that bipartisan support will be critical to any bond referendum's chances. "It is pretty hard to get this passed without support of both parties," said Kean, on Friday.

"Still, any state would be nervous," Kean continued. "It is not a good time for this. But I don't know when it ever is. It's all about priorities, and I can say that if we continue to defund higher education, we will suffer badly as a state."

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