With a U.S. Senate account already open, state Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-3) stood squarely in U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg's (D-NJ) wheel house this morning in a fierce intra-party flareup over the proposed Rowan takeover of Rutgers-Camden.
"Sen. Lautenberg's bizarre and misguided comments come at a time when New Jersey needs serious leadership on this issue," said Sweeney, reacting to Lautenberg's questioning of the Rowan for Rutgers deal. "Our state ranks a dismal 47th out of 50 in federal funding for higher education. That is unacceptable. Yet rather than fighting in Washington on our state's behalf, he engages in unseemly grandstanding back home in an attempt to settle old political scores."
Sweeney went straight at Lautenberg's record, heaping scorn on the veteran, who's up for re-election in 2014.
His comments came in the wake of a letter Lautenberg sent on Monday to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan asking for federal scrutiny of the proposed deal.
"While Sen. Lautenberg has failed all of New Jersey on the issue of higher education, his callous disregard for South Jersey has been reprehensible," Sweeney fumed. "He seems to forget that he was elected to represent all the people of New Jersey, not just those who live north of Trenton. On issue after issue, Sen. Lautenberg has been missing in action when it comes to the problems and concerns of his constituents in this region.
"On this issue, Sen. Lautenberg ignores how South Jersey has been shortchanged in state funding for higher education. The reasons for the proposed merger of Rutgers Camden and Rowan have nothing to do with the funding of the medical school but everything to do with correcting this imbalance. In fact, Rutgers-Camden serves as a cash cow feeding Rutgers-New Brunswick. Each year, nearly half of every tuition dollar in Camden is siphoned off by Rutgers-New Brunswick. An equitable distribution of Rutgers state operating funds to Camden would add approximately $40-$50 million annually to Rutgers-Camden.
"For these and many more reasons, funding for higher education in South Jersey has to change. We deserve our fair share of higher education funding and the benefits of our own research university right here in South Jersey."
Lautenberg's office all but brushed Sweeney aside to take aim at South Jersey Democratic leader George Norcross III.
"The senator stands with the people of South Jersey who are questioning the wisdom of this back-room deal, not a political boss seeking to expand his influence," said Lautenberg spokesman Caley Gray. "It's sad that elected officials will simply fall in line on orders from their political benefactor when so many South Jerseyans are alarmed by this deal. Instead of attacking Senator Lautenberg, these politicians should be joining the senator in demanding answers from Governor Christie about the effect this deal will have on student costs, jobs, and the financial health of our state colleges."
More than a month ago, on Feb. 22, Lautenberg raised questions about the impact of the proposed merger in a letter to Gov. Christie, but said the governor failed to respond to the senator's questions or provide additional information about the proposal.
Sweeney doesn't sympathize.
"Unfortunately, Sen. Lautenberg doesn't seem to understand these issues," said the Senate president. "Since his comments have no basis in fact, and that he took this deplorable action without even discussing the matter with those who know the facts, the only conclusion is that Sen. Lautenberg is trying to avenge past political differences. It is deeply regrettable that he's trying to settle old political scores at the expense of the students and parents who deserve the very best educational opportunities we can offer.
"We respectfully call on Sen. Lautenberg to do the right thing, to put aside his personal political grievances and work for the best interests of the people he was elected to serve. His personal feelings should not stand in the way of a serious, mutually respectful discussion of this highly important issue."
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