Weekly Roundup: Week of March 12

TRENTON – Both houses of the Legislature were back in action Thursday, taking on a wide range of bills.

They focused on some elusive issues – greater transparency in patronage pits, better access to higher education, providing more educational opportunities to the disadvantaged, and updating the state’s environmental and energy policies without being too cumbersome.

Other bills that advanced included the sales tax “holiday” bill, the tiger trade prohibitions, and the higher payments for simulcasting horse races bill.

The head of the Assembly Transportation Committee kept up his fight for more accountability at the much-maligned Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. Long criticized as a patronage pit for both political parties, a bill was passed in the Assembly giving the government committee subpoena power over the bi-state agency.

However, before the bill was passed, Republicans took shots at Committee Chair John Wisniewski, saying that his dual role as head of the state Democratic Committee created questions regarding impartiality.

Audits are already under way, the Republicans said: Let them run their course.

But Wisniewski responded that the simple act of requesting information that the public has a right to should not be generating this much opposition.

Other education measures voted upon during the sessions included the STARS scholarship program, which would enable community college students to receive financial assistance to attend other schools.

The Legislature also passed the Health Benefits Exchange Act, which would set up one-stop shops where consumers could select from an assortment of various health care plans.

The original Assembly bill contained language in which the Board of Directors would not be compensated. However, the bill, A2717, was amended to mirror the Senate bill S1319, which calls for paying $50,000 to each member serving on the governing body.

Business groups decry this approach during a tough economy, saying it will force employers to make difficult and possibly unpleasant choices, but its backers say it’s required as part of the federal health care overhaul and the least that government can do for its neediest residents.

After the Council of Local Mandates ruled the original incarnation of the “Anti-bullying Law” an unfunded mandate, the Legislature passed a bipartisan bill that included a cool $1 million for the remainder of the fiscal year for anti-bullying programs. The school districts could apply for the funding after exhausting their own resources.

One bill that did not even come up for a vote had drawn a great deal of attention.

The Permit Extension Act was pulled down from the board list in both chambers after environmentalists’ complaints that it was a threat to the state’s clean air and water. Business interests, however, lobbied for the bill that would extend by two years applicants’ permits, giving them extra time to find financing for projects.

Budget hearings

Various community-based social agencies treating such things as mental health disorders and drug addictions made their case to the Senate Budget Committee to preserve funding in the proposed fiscal year 2013 budget, saying it would serve as an investment in a promising future for many of their clients.

Charters

Gov. Chris Christie’s quest for strengthening education, particularly charter schools, got a boost again this week, as the federal government announced on Tuesday it would award the state more than $14 million to get new charter schools started up.

Weekly Roundup: Week of March 12