TRENTON – Numerous bills were taken up by committees in another hectic week leading up to the budget deadline.
But the most ambitious and controversial bill took center stage – the proposed higher-education reorganization plan involving Rutgers and Rowan Universities and the breakup of the University of Medicine and Dentistry.
The Senate Budget Committee advanced the bill last Monday evening, and now the Assembly Budget Committee will handle it this Monday morning.
Senate President Steven Sweeney insists the postponement is not a big deal but the Assembly Democrats’ threat of withholding their support for the party budget undoubtedly was on most minds.
The plan calls for Rutgers University taking over most of UMDNJ, and having Rutgers’ Camden campus gain some autonomy as opposed to the original plan that called for a complete absorption by Rowan. Rutgers-Camden would join with Rowan in a quasi-merger to establish a research university in South Jersey and would have the ability to make its own financial decisions.
It is still not definitively known how much the plan will cost.
As with all things related to the budget, each side fought hard to make their case.
Once again, majority Democrats called for a “millionaire’s tax” despite knowing what the outcome will be. The Assembly Budget Committee and the Senate Budget Committee in the past week released bills calling for the surcharge on high-income earners.
Republicans slammed it as bad policy, with Assemblyman Jay Webber, (R-26), of Morris Plains, calling the Democrats “one -trick ponies.” They countered, calling themselves “thoroughbreds who are fighting for the working class.” Vincent Prieto, the Democratic chair of the Assembly Budget Committee, countered they did support a tax cut in the form of an earned income tax credit.
Democrats passed a bill calling for putting the increase in the EITC in place right away, instead of in two years as Gov. Chris Christie calls for.
The Democratic Budget
In case anyone was holding their breath on whether there would be any bipartisan support for the Democrats’ $31.7 billion budget , they got their answer: no. The Republicans, and Gov. Chris Christie, cited the lack of a tax cut of any kind, as the reason for not supporting the budget. Even though $180 million is called for being set aside, the funds to provide a tax cut wouldn’t kick in for another six months. And that’s only if the revenue picture holds up nicely.
At a town hall earlier this week, Christie couldn’t help but point out the Democrats’ reticence toward immediate tax cuts, calling them “Corzine Democrats” in reference to his predecessor.
The proposed Democratic budget is $400 million smaller than the one Christie has proposed and puts more funds toward social programs like women’s health, family planning, and legal services for the poor.
History was made, in essence, when the state Senate passed a bill reforming the century-old teacher tenure system, a bill drafted by Sen. Teresa Ruiz, (D-20), of Newark. The bill calls for extending the time period in which teachers can become eligible for tenure from three years to four years, and having more evaluations to make sure the teachers are deemed “effective.” Republicans and Democrats alike lavished praise on Ruiz for her hard work and dedication to the issue.
The Assembly Budget Committee released the bill on Friday after tweaking it a bit and the bill now is on track to be passed before the fiscal year ends.
The tanning bill was revisited, this time by the Senate Health Committee, and it actually has the support of tanning advocates. The Senate bill, S1172, calls for banning tanning services for those under age 16 and prohibiting teens who are old enough to receive tanning services on their own from receiving them on two consecutive days. It is vastly different from the Assembly bill, which calls for banning tanning services for anyone under age 18.
Other bills that made it out of various committees include expanding gaming activities to the Internet, a gift card law to remove those unspent funds from the escheat laws, and placing a moratorium on “virtual” charter schools.
Red light cameras
To the delight of drivers around the state – but the disappointment of some towns – the state Department of Transportation has decided to suspend the red light cameras for 63 of the 85 intersections where the devices are installed.
The reason is because the amount of time the signals are yellow may be shorter than what laws require. As a result, some drivers are getting tickets who may not deserve them, and towns are being criticized for using the devices merely as ways to generate revenue.
At the risk of not seeing the state’s transportation infrastructure deteriorate further, an Assembly committee moved legislation that calls for borrowing billions of dollars to shore up the Transportation Trust Fund.
The bill, A3205, would authorize bonding of approximately $3.45 billion for the state’s capital transportation needs through 2016.
The Transportation Trust Fund, long a source of political jousting, is again having some funds from it diverted this year to close budget gaps.
The Assembly Judiciary Committee held off on voting on the controversial plan to install interlock devices in the cars of repeat drug offenders, saying plenty of amendments need to be considered. However, they did give the green light to a bill where people who call in a drug overdose to authorities would be granted protection from prosecution in some cases.
A possible budget logjam emerged late in the week when news broke that a bloc of nine Assembly Democrats had united to possibly withhold yes votes on the budget unless they won concessions, most notably on the college reorganization plan. But then on Friday it turned out that two of the members, Connie Wagner and Tim Eustace, have decided to back the budget.