Weekly Roundup: Week of Dec. 12

TRENTON – Give the people an option.

That’s the message delivered this week regarding the proposal to move the vote-starved school board elections to November, when most elections take place.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Donald Norcross, (D-5), of Camden, would enable municipal governments, school boards, or a percentage of voters to move the elections if they choose. After four years, they could decide to move them back to April if things don’t work out.

The bill was released from an Assembly committee this week. Some groups expressed concern that politics may mire the process, but the bigger goal of voter participations won them over.

That was just one of the highlights of a busy week near year’s end of bills being handled in committee or voted upon in the Legislature.

Raw milk advocates packed an Economic Growth Committee hearing, calling for the state to pass legislation that would allow dairy farmers to sell the product, which is presently illegal in the Garden State.

They said it can help prevent certain illnesses. Opponents of the bill, however, said there were cases of food-borne illnesses in other states.

Ultimately, the committee held off on releasing it, with Chairman Raymond Lesniak, (D-20), of Elizabeth saying it will be relisted in a future committee agenda.

The Homeland Security Committee of the Assembly released a bill calling  for the creation of a cyber-crimes bureau within the Department of Homeland Security. The bill’s prime sponsor, Annette Quijano, (D-20), Elizabeth, said the bill would help streamline the operations, enabling certain personnel to focus primarily on this growing crime. Such a bureau is needed, she said, because New Jersey is a high-risk target, home to many transit hubs and big-time employers in the telecommunications and pharmaceutical industries.

The Assembly and Senate each held year-end voting sessions including dozens – and dozens – of bills, wrapping up work on some high-profile issues.

By a unanimous vote, the state Assembly passed Caylee’s Law, which would make it a felony for knowingly failing to report a missing child within 24 hours. The law was inspired by the case of Florida resident Casey Anthony, who gained national attention when she was accused of killing her 2-year-old daughter. The girl was not reported missing until several weeks had passed.

Anthony was later found not guilty.  

Transitional Aid finally received approval. After much drama stretching back to the summer budget battles over the issue of accountability for providing much-needed money to distressed cities, the Transitional Aid bill passed both the Assembly and Senate on Thursday. Gov. Chris Christie has indicated he will sign the bill. The bill calls for $139 million in Aid and another $1.5 million for oversight of the program that Christie said was necessary in order for the legislation to win his signature.

As they did in the summer, Senate Democrats passed several bills in the name of job creation. They included the Back to Work N.J. Program, the Grow N.J. Assistance Program, and a loan program.

As was the case earlier this year, the votes were largely along party lines.

The state Senate voted to approve sports gambling, but some senators expressed opposition. They included Republican Mike Doherty and Democrat Shirley Turner, who rarely see eye to eye on most subjects.

They said there are already enough gambling opportunities and don’t see the need for more. Doherty also questioned the reported economic benefits behind such a move.

Nonetheless, the amended bill – Ray Lesniak pulled out a controversial internet gambling provision that Gov. Christie was against – was passed by the upper chamber.

Government agencies can make a turnaround.

Just ask the Division of Developmental Disabilities

The Office of the State Comptroller has heaped praise on the DDD for making improvements in several areas, such as recovering thousands of dollars, tightening its travel expenditure policy and better monitoring contracts, Comptroller Matthew Boxer said in a report issued this week.

“We’re pleased that the Division of Developmental Disabilities has made significant progress in correcting the flaws we identified in our initial audit,” Boxer said in reference to a 2009 audit. “These concrete changes already have saved significant taxpayer dollars and will continue to pay dividends for New Jersey in the future.

There was good news on the jobs front; New Jersey added more than 10,000 jobs in November. But there were some elements that were less than celebratory, as most of those jobs were seasonal retail and hospitality industry gigs. Also, the unemployment rate remains unchanged. Still, state officials like Treasury Department economist Charles Steindel hailed the continued job growth pattern.

As she had touted at a Department of Banking and Insurance conference, Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno praised the work the administration has done in slicing corporate business tax rates and retaining large private sector businesses that would have otherwise taken their services to other states. The biggest difference, she noted, was the increased number of economic development applications the state has seen. Nonetheless, more needs to be done, she said.

Weekly Roundup: Week of Dec. 12