For benefit of N.J. public colleges and universities, state should restore public-private partnerships

For the last five years, New Jersey’s public colleges and universities have greatly benefited from legislation authorizing public-private partnerships that has resulted in hundreds of millions of dollars of private capital being leveraged to the benefit of public campuses throughout New Jersey at no taxpayer expense.

Despite the program’s overwhelming success, it expired this summer and has not been reauthorized to the detriment of New Jersey’s public colleges and universities and students. Legislation proposed earlier this year would have reauthorized and expanded the program to other public infrastructure projects, but Gov. Chris Christie conditionally vetoed the legislation due to concerns, in part, related to its prevailing wage and project labor agreement requirements.

Originally authorized by Gov. Jon Corzine in 2009 and expanded by Gov. Christie in 2012, the Higher Education Institutions Public-Private Partnership Program has been administered by the New Jersey Economic Development Authority (NJEDA). When in place, this program allowed public colleges and universities to enter into arm’s length agreements with private developers who assume all financial and administrative responsibility for the development of capital projects on campus. The program also allowed for a streamlined approval process exempt from traditional local land use regulations that often delay large-scale projects for years. Under the program, all projects had to be completed within five years of NJEDA approval.

Rutgers University, The College of New Jersey, Montclair State University, New Jersey City University and Rowan University have all utilized this program to expand campus facilities that help to drive enrollment in an increasingly competitive higher education market. The vast majority of these projects have been for student housing, but also other on-campus amenities such as new dining halls, bookstores, fitness facilities, on-campus restaurants and retail stores and to upgrade aging and obsolete heating, cooling and energy distribution infrastructure.

Cash-strapped state colleges and universities have come to rely on this program to leverage private funding for these essential initiatives that would have otherwise been impossible to develop with limited public resources. Gov. Christie, the New Jersey Legislature, school administrators and objective third parties have all praised the program for the efficient manner in which it has been managed by the NJEDA and for the significant benefits that these on-campus improvements provide in attracting and retaining the best and brightest students in New Jersey.

Obviously, this program has not only improved our state’s deteriorating public college and university campuses, but it has created thousands of jobs without any public subsidy or financial liability. This success should serve as a template for future utilization of such partnerships. We cannot miss any new opportunities to leverage private financing of these public projects while money is available and cheap for such private investment in public projects on our campuses or elsewhere. Any public projects that may generate revenues for state or local governments could be fertile ground for public-private partnerships to better serve the public such as roadways, parking facilities, housing or wastewater infrastructure.

With Election Day out of the way and just weeks left in the current legislative session, now is the time to come to a consensus to reauthorize these public-private partnerships and expand the program’s scope to create new opportunities to leverage private resources for additional public purposes.

Brian M. Nelson, Esq., is a partner with Archer P.C. and leads the firm’s State and Local Law & Government Practice Group. Nelson is a former member of the board of the NJEDA.

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