Weekly Advance: Week of Oct. 17

TRENTON – For those political wonks watching the Trenton Fall Classic in which all 120 seats in the Legislature are up for grabs: expect ho-hum fielder’s choices, maybe a few bloop singles. There will be no grand slams, no base-clearing triples, no extra-innings barnburners.

Granted, that’s not exactly a newsflash. The over/under for incumbent losses would be somewhere near 1.5 seats – millions of dollars and countless hours spent from Montague to Cape May Point for but a few minor adjustments.

Taking the over, Republican backers are hopeful for a new majority. More bettors are going the other way; the under is favored by incumbent Democrats and most keen observers and political experts.

With an opportunity to seize complete control of the Capital City, even Gov. Chris Christie is soft-pedaling the races, referring back to the gerrymandering convention at the Heldrich Hotel as the deciding factor in a November snoozer.

One or two seats will change hands and control will remain for the Democrats, experts believe. The election is shaping up as a small-ball buntfest with power hitters neutralized by lines on the map, and 1-0 loss for the underdogs.

So, we look to the offseason, a bonanza lame duck session. (Even though there will be few actual lame ducks if predictions are right, with the election in the rearview, lawmakers will be exponentially more willing to actually cast a vote in public – any vote.)

State Street Wire has reported in depth on the coming squabbles over Transitional Aid, education reform, and toolkit leftovers civil service and sick leave reform.

Today, we look at a few other ongoing situations that will come to a head soon after Election Day.

Rutgers/UMDNJ merger

The last time officials considered combining the state university and state medical school the plan was railroaded, mainly, by the Rutgers’ Board of Trustees. This time around, according to two sources, the trustees are amenable to the still ill-defined plan, gazing lustily at the money-making medical school and its hundred-million-dollar grants for R&D and such.

The only potential snags could come from the UMDNJ board, if they can convince Essex County lawmakers to make their case in Trenton.

Christie is waiting for advisory committee recommendations that will shape the final blueprint for merging the two schools, and said he intends to submit the reorganization plan to the Legislature soon after. The likelihood of stopping this mostly-unified front for consolidation is dwindling, sources said. More likely, regional politics will guide the dividing of the spoils and the governor will make his argument in a budgetary frame, using dollars-and-cents savings to finalize the third effort at consolidation these two schools have made in recent times.

Medical marijuana

Around every corner seems to be another speed bump for the compassionate care program. There have been snags on the state’s end, but the most likely dead ends will come on the local level.

If a comparatively-progressive suburban town like Maple Shade is sending the medical marijuana minions walking, where does the industry go?

A source in the administration said that the state could have done a better job at clarifying the arduous and timely process of getting the strictly-regulated new industry up and running, but as it stands, there is little or no momentum pushing the program forward right now.

With $62 million on the line in the next decade for the six chosen dispensaries, operators might be inclined to pressure the administration to make it work, even if it means recruiting some towns to host the dispensaries.

One source said urban areas like New Brunswick and Asbury Park should be more inclined to approve the facilities, and there is still a hope with some that Rutgers University will come onboard, a large domino that could return some momentum.

Worst case, though, the situation could shape up very much like the failed off-track betting program, sources agreed, where state licensing allowed operations to begin, but many towns decided it wasn’t worth it. Whereas the wagering palaces are seen as contributing nothing to the quality of life of host residents, the marijuana issue may have an edge since it is a cause championed by the sick and dying.

Judges’ pension parry

Superior Court Judge Paul DePascale’s lawsuit challenging the state’s pension reforms is moving along, even though the decision will almost certainly not be final until the state Supreme Court gets its hands on it sometime in the future.

It wasn’t a surprise that the public employees who are also suing the state weren’t allowed to join DePascale’s case since judges are afforded protection by the state constitution where the other employees are not. This is precisely what made the judges’ case stronger from the get-go. Another consequence is that DePascale’s case was leaps ahead of the other public workers’ case, so the proceedings won’t be taken backwards by merging the two cases.

The judges’ case isn’t scheduled for any further hearings – some document submissions are going on currently – and should be wrapped in a few weeks. No matter the outcome – some experts are predicting a DePascale win – the case will be appealed, possibly directly to the Supremes. The litigant tried to bypass the superior and appellate courts initially, but was dismissed by the top court without prejudice.

The Statehouse Commission is watching the rate of judicial retirements with interest. At this week’s meeting, both State Sen. Bob Smith, (D-17), of Piscataway, and Assemblyman John Bramnick, (R-21), of Westfield, raised questions about whether the pension reform is causing an exodus from benches. Representatives from the state Division of Pensions and Benefits told the Commission they are watching that very issue and will report back at some point in the future.

These issues are backdrops in the October run-up to the elections – barely undercurrents in a quiet capital center – but once the boring pitcher’s duel of an election is over, you’ll know what’s coming next. Batter up.


Weekly Advance: Week of Oct. 17