Matt Katz, New Jersey Public Radio
A little-noticed bill that passed the New Jersey Legislature last month gives extraordinary eminent domain powers to a new higher education board in South Jersey. But Gov. Chris Christie, embroiled in two abuse-of-power scandals and a range of investigations, doesn't know anything about it.
A caller to the "Ask The Governor" radio show on New Jersey 101.5 Monday night questioned Christie about the bill that would allow a new joint Rowan/Rutgers University board to seize private property in Camden.
"The Rowan Rutgers board with powers of eminent domain?" Christie asked, furrowing his brow. He was surprised that such a proposal existed, but said his attorneys would review it if the bill ever made it to his desk.
"I haven’t heard anything to this point about a giving eminent domain to a university," Christie said. "I don’t think that’s how it works."
Except that’s exactly how it works, because Christie himself signed this bill into law less than three weeks ago. And he did so despite opposition from Republicans who were concerned about giving powers of eminent domain to a not-yet-fully-formed board, known as the Rowan University-Rutgers Camden Board of Governors, that is charged with overseeing a brand new health sciences campus.
One concern: Rutgers University itself doesn’t even have powers of eminent domain.
"That was the big sticking point for me," said Assemblyman Jay Webber, a Morris County Republican. "I was reluctant to give yet another body the ability to take private property from property owners."
He was also unhappy because the bill was "slammed through" at the end of the legislative session. There was little debate, but at a state Senate hearing Republican Sen. Joe Pennacchio, also of Morris County, said he had "major concerns about a bill that would give an advisory board, not an elected board, the right of eminent domain, to take away the property rights of individual citizens."
But the new law is rooted in one of Christie’s first term accomplishments — restructuring higher education — that came about because of a partnership with Democrats, not Republicans. The restructuring was pushed by George E. Norcross III, the unelected South Jersey Democratic leader who is the chairman of Cooper University Hospital in Camden. That hospital has a new medical school with Rowan University and directly benefits from both the restructuring and the new eminent domain law.
The bill was rushed through by Norcross ally Stephen Sweeney, the state Senate President and a South Jersey Democrat who has worked extensively with the governor. The quick bill signing indicates that — despite the George Washington Bridge investigation led by Democrats in the Legislature — the alliance between Christie and Sweeney is still very much alive. That suggests Christie may continue to be able to govern despite the bridge scandal and the Sandy funding shakedown allegations plaguing his administration.
Yet Christie’s lack of knowledge about the issue indicates another political reality: The governor may be so distracted by the dual scandals enveloping his administration that he appeared to not be aware of a law he himself signed.
Christie’s spokesmen didn’t reply to several requests for an explanation.