Weekly Advance: Week of Nov. 28

TRENTON – Best bet this week? Lay good money on state Sen. Ray Lesniak’s, (D-20), of Elizabeth, sports wagering bill to pass committee.

This major effort to unshackle sports betting from a stronghold by select states across the nation is moving forward and gaining momentum. When it’s all said and done, several other states could be thanking New Jersey for the effort.

Lesniak and state Sen. Jeff Van Drew, (D-1), of Cape May, teamed up on the legislation, S3113, which hits the State Government, Wagering, Tourism & Historic Preservation Committee on Thursday. The bill follows a voter referendum that turned out nearly 2-to-1 support for sports gambling this month.

Myriad folks had a hand in the slow-rolling federal challenge that after the referendum counts Gov. Chris Christie as a supporter, including front-liner Bill Pascrell III of Princeton Public Affairs Group, who conducted a well-timed and skillfully executed social media campaign. But even a confident Pascrell was surprised at the amount of voter support.

The new bill permits wagering at casinos and racetracks (or operations at a former racetrack site) on certain professional and collegiate sports or athletic events, excluding any college sporting event taking place in New Jersey or any event in which a New Jersey college team participates, regardless of venue.

The Casino Control Commission would issue licenses to operate the sports pools and the Division of Gaming Enforcement would regulate operations. Gross revenues from wagering would be subject to an 8 percent gross revenue tax and an investment alternative tax.

The committee will also hold a public hearing on the Department of Corrections’ Reorganization and Career Enhancement Proposal.

APB on ABP contributions

In the Senate Education Committee, a controversial higher education pension bill will be voted on, A3694.

The bill authorizes public higher ed institutions to make a supplemental contribution to a faculty member’s Alternate Benefit Program (ABP) account and passed the Assembly, 53-24-1, on June 29.

Currently, the state is required to make employer contribution of 8 percent of the maximum salary for department officers – which is currently $141,000 – but does not exceed the rate equal to 8 percent of the faculty member’s base salary. This includes faculty members at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, the New Jersey Institute of Technology, and state and county colleges.

Under the bill, a supplemental contribution may exceed the set rate, and also provides that an election by a public institution of higher education to make a supplemental contribution to the ABP on behalf of its faculty members must be irrevocable.

According to the state Division of Pensions and Benefits, the total potential cost to state and county institutions – if all institutions chose to make supplemental contributions under the bill on behalf of their faculty members – would be $8.2 million in FY12, $8.4 million in FY13, and $8.7 million in FY14.

Senate Dems working the issues

The Assembly Majority, for all intents and purposes, closed up shop for months coming into the election – some of which is attributed to the leadership feud – and are still slow getting into the post-election rhythm.

On the other hand, the Democrats in the Senate seem to be taking the lead in most cases. Two sources said the upper chamber majority is actually getting tired of the lack of action in the lower chamber, as many of the bills that have passed the Senate await passage in the Assembly.

State Sen. President Steve Sweeney, (D-3), of West Deptford, and the Senate Democrats have two bills in the works concerning accidental disability pensions, after stories by APP’s Jason Method and Star-Ledger’s Jarrett Renshaw highlighted the increasing payouts – $91.5 million to police and firefighters in 2010.

A source said the Dems will offer two bills: the first will create a group to study the situation and create a new, very specific definition of “accidental disability;” the second will require a doctor to, annually or biannually, examine the pensioner for any changes to the disabling condition.

With the submission of the Senate Dems’ Transitional Aid bill, the onus is on Christie to decide whether to continue this oddly drawn out political pettifog or to just accept a $1.5 million increase in aid to struggling cities.

Either way, it’s the Senate that’s fighting this battle, not the Assembly.

$100M for ‘acts of God’

Five Assembly committees are convening on Monday to handle a number of bills, including the $100 million bond issuance of the Emergency Transportation and Water Infrastructure Recovery Bond Act.

The bill, sponsored by Assemblywoman Connie Wagner, (D-38), of Paramus, authorizes the issuance of $100 million in state general obligation bonds divvied out in halves into county grants and municipal grants for transportation and water infrastructure projects. The projects must have been caused, directly or indirectly, by Hurricane Irene or “other acts of God during August and September, 2011.”

The bill allows the commissioners of Transportation and Environmental Protection to establish eligibility criteria and procedures for the review and approval of the projects. Each commissioner will prepare a priority list of eligible projects under their jurisdiction, and bond funds would be appropriated by the Legislature “only in accordance with the respective priority lists.”

Usually state bond issuances require voter approval, but because the funding is being used to “meet an emergency caused by . . . (an) act of God,” the legislation is exempt from the constitutional requirement.

Another Wagner bill will also be heard in the Environment and Solid Waste Committee. A4231 prohibits any wastewater resulting from hydraulic fracturing – fracking – to be shipped or transported from any other state or treated in New Jersey.

Back to Work back

Back to Work NJ makes its return to the Assembly Labor Committee, with its $3 million price tag still attached and no particular revenue stream provided.

The program was part of a 14-bill “jobs” package vetoed by Christie in February: “a collection of appropriations, credits and loan programs, set-asides, and other financial incentives for which no revenue or funding sources are identified.”

But bill sponsor, Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver, (D-34), of East Orange, is making another attempt at A4332, which is based on a successful Georgia works program. This program provides workplace training to certain eligible unemployment insurance beneficiaries through certain eligible employers, a maximum of 24 hours per week for up to six weeks. (Participation is voluntary for both parties, and UI beneficiaries can continue to collect their benefits.)

Also, the bill provides the trainees up to $100 per week to help defray training related costs – transportation, clothing, child care – based upon his or her needs.

Also in the Labor Committee is S1301, a “shared work” bill sponsored by state Sens. Fred Madden, (D-4), of Washington Township, and Mike Doherty, (R-23), of Washington Township. The measure passed the upper chamber, 37-1, in March, but has sat stagnant in the lower chamber since.

The bill is designed to encourage hard-luck employers to reduce employee hours and avoid layoffs by sharing the remaining work, according to the summary statement. In order to aid the shared work allowance, the bill permits a full-time employee to receive unemployment benefits when the employee’s weekly work time is reduced by 10% or more, under certain circumstances. The employee may also attend approved training programs while receiving th
ose benefits.

Education reform primer

Lying afoot in the education reform lame duck landscape is the increasing support for Sen. Doherty’s “Fair School Funding Plan,” which with the support of state Sen. Kevin O’Toole (R-40), of Cedar Grove, now counts the entire GOP representation on the Senate Budget Committee. The others are state Sens. Tony Bucco (R-25), of Boonton; Steve Oroho (R-24), of Franklin Township; and Joe Pennacchio (R-26), of Pine Brook.

Some Democratic operatives speculated that O’Toole’s support – which, even given O’Toole’s closeness to the governor, isn’t any indicator that Christie is supportive of Doherty’s plan – is more of a political indicator. The speculation is that O’Toole is lending his name to Doherty’s “fair funding” plan while trying to edge Doherty and his Tea Party support out of the GOP’s 2012 U.S. Senate primary, clearing a lane for state Sen. Joe Kyrillos (R-13), of Middletown, to carry the a mainstream Republican banner.

Looking ahead in education reform: with pilot programs for teacher evaluations – the keystone of tenure and merit pay initiatives – in the field, sources said the other reforms could go forward with a to-be-continued gap in language. Once the powers-that-be see some results from the pilots and come to a conclusion on evals – maybe next year – the necessary adjustments can be made to the other reforms if they pass first.

Dept. of Agriculture growing

If another bill is approved, the Department of Environmental Protection will be shrinking and the Department of Agriculture will be growing – pun intended.

Sponsored by Assemblyman John Amodeo (R-2), of Margate, A2770 would transfer from DEP to Ag five divisions or councils: 1) the Division of Fish and Wildlife; 2) the Fish and Game Council in the Division of Fish and Wildlife; 3) the Marine Fisheries Council; 4) the Shellfisheries Council; and 5) the New Jersey Migratory Waterfowl Advisory Committee in the Division of Fish and Wildlife.

Another safe bet for this week? Most legislators couldn’t tell you what the Migratory Waterfowl Advisory Committee does in the first place. Ante up.

  Weekly Advance: Week of Nov. 28