TRENTON – Gov. Chris Christie may have been out of town for much of the week, but the Statehouse was still buzzing with wall-to-wall committee hearings on Thursday and an Assembly session on Monday, the first in nearly a half-year.
Several pieces of lame-duck legislation were acted upon. Here are the highlights:
After one of the longer carrot and stick games in Trenton, Democrats and some Republicans finally came together to move a Transitional Aid bill in the Assembly on Monday and in the Senate Budget Committee on Thursday.
The companion bills, S3118 and A4373, call for $139 million in aid to distressed cities, as well as an additional $1.5 million for oversight of those funds. Democrats had initially argued in the summer that oversight funds had always been included, but Gov. Chris Christie simply disagreed and conditionally vetoed the legislation before heading for summer vacation.
In the Name of Job Creation
As they did in the summer, the Democrats passed several bills – the Back to Work NJ bill, the Small Business Loan program – designed to create jobs and stimulate the economy, all of which Christie vetoed after the budget was adopted by the Legislature.
The Republican lawmakers acted characteristically, opposing the bills because they were too costly, and the return on investment in their eyes was low, if not a loss.
Assemblyman Jay Webber pointed out the Georgia Work$ program, which one of the Back to Work programs is modeled after, went way over budget in the Peach State.
“We expect multi-billion deficits that we’re going to have to grapple with in 2013,” he said. “This is an obligation that could multiply rapidly.”
With bipartisan support, the Assembly passed a bill that would allow pharmacies to sell syringes without a prescription.
The bill will allow anyone age 18 or older to buy from a pharmacy a hypodermic needle used for intravenous drug use. They’re the same kind of needles diabetics use to give themselves insulin.
New Jersey and Delaware are the only two states currently where the sale of syringes without a prescription is not allowed.
Some Republicans were concerned that the legislation doesn’t call for any safeguards that would cover disposal of the needles after they’re used, fearing, for example, that children might find them discarded in a playground.
In a move intended to boost voter turnout and influence, the Assembly Appropriations Committee on Thursday released bill A4394, which would move school board elections to the general election day in November.
The bill, however, would not give voters the opportunity to vote on the district’s base budget, unless it exceeds the 2 percent tax cap.
The legislation does contain some exceptions. For example, it allows for a local option for changeover procedures, for instance referendum approval or petition approval, requiring signatures of 15 percent of voters in the preceding general election for state lawmakers. Under another option, the election may be moved without voter approval, merely by the adoption of a resolution by the board of education or the governing body of the municipality.
Energy Master Plan
Environmental groups have generally slammed many of the governor’s environmental and energy polices. But the energy master plan that was unveiled earlier this week is intended to institute a common-sense approach, according to the administration.
It allows for the potential of a nuclear power plant, more natural gas, expanding pipelines, and offering more opportunities to include solar energy.
“Nuclear power, if constructed and operated safely, can be a long-term cost-effective hedge against fossil fuel price volatility, while providing thousands of jobs,” the report says. “It will lower wholesale power costs while strengthening the foundation for economically and environmentally sound programs aimed at lessening the State’s dependence on oil.”
Democratic opponents, however, have argued Gov. Christie’s plan turns back the clock on New Jersey’s pursuit of cleaner, renewable energy.
“The Sopranos” was just a popular TV show based on a fictitious mob family in New Jersey. But like all great fiction, it may have been inspired by truth.
This week, a State Commission of Investigation report found that the state’s commercial solid waste industry remains as vulnerable to abuse and corruption by criminal elements now as two decades ago.
The commission recommended an expanded program that keeps the waste industry in check, making sure recycling officials are licensed, and that it be connected to the Attorney General’s office.
Among other things, the report said the recycling and disposal of contaminated soil and demolition debris poses serious health risks and is one of the biggest problems open to abuse.
“The ability of mob-affiliated entrepreneurs to continue profiting from the system even after they have been unmasked reflects a fundamental flaw and not merely some anomalous bureaucratic snafu,’’ the report states.
The report states that the governor and Legislature should consider off-budget, self-funding mechanisms, including special licensing fees, as part of a coordinated attempt to shield the solid waste and recycling businesses from “unsavory elements.’’
When Christie did return to the Garden State after earlier stumping for presidential candidate Mitt Romney, Christie once again railed against Democrats for not taking action on sick-leave payout and vacation cash-out reform.
Christie is seeking to eliminate this form of compensation altogether, and he wasn’t alone in that thinking.
The governor was joined by 234 mayors from around the state.
“After having specific bills to act on for nearly 19 months, it is past time for the Legislature to stand up and give mayors the tools they are asking for to provide savings to taxpayers, including a complete end to the inexplicable practice of paying scarce taxpayer dollars for unused sick days,” said Christie.
“Like the other tool kit bills, real sick and vacation benefit reform is a common sense reform that has bipartisan support of mayors, local elected officials and lawmakers from communities all across our state – urban and suburban, shore and inland, Democrat and Republican. There is no excuse for the Legislature’s continued failure to deliver savings to our cities and property taxpayers.”.
To prove its point, the governor’s office released a chart of the estimated total accumulated sick and vacation time owed to public workers in several key towns.
For months, Sen. Ron Rice, (D-28), Newark, has used the tradition of senatorial courtesy to hold up confirmation of acting Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf.
Rice dislikes the policies that Cerf stands for, seeing him as an enemy of the public school system.
Gov. Christie has fired back by holding up on filling 11 Essex County judgeships until Rice backs down on Cerf’s nomination.
The judicial shortage has become so troublesome that the assignment judge in Essex has suspended some civil and family court proceedings.
But Rice is not giving in, and even a GOP letter to the Senate president to have senatorial courtesy suspended in order to break this logjam yielded no results.