Weekly Roundup: Week of Jan. 9

TRENTON – Usually, a marathon legislative session – and all the drama that flows through the halls of power among lobbyists, activists and lawmakers – would make for the most topical news of the week.

But that was quickly overshadowed by the sudden death of longtime Assemblyman and Minority Leader Alex DeCroce, (R-26), of Parsippany late Monday night, shortly after the conclusion of an 8-hour-long lame-duck session. The assemblyman’s collapse in a Statehouse bathroom stunned lawmakers, who paid tribute to him during a solemn ceremony on Tuesday.

DeCroce’s death prompted Gov. Chris Christie, who credited DeCroce for helping him get his start in politics, to use his constitutional authority and hold off on giving his much-planned state of the state address until this coming week.

Christie recalled DeCroce as one of the kindest lawmakers, a model of a politician serving as the antithesis of the divisive politics that permeate many governments these days. He referred to him as an “unshakable ally.”

Other lawmakers, such as Jon Bramnick, (R-21), Westfield, said he “didn’t have a mean bone in his body.”

During the actual Senate and Assembly sessions, several bills were passed that would help school reform, stimulate the economy, and keep more money in your pocket.

‘Hope’ for schools

Just days after being passed by both houses, Gov. Chris Christie signed the Urban Hope Act in Camden on Thursday afternoon, which would enable nonprofit entities in three struggling school districts – Newark, Camden, and Trenton –  to create up to four new public school projects, called “renaissance schools.” The projects would be constructed with private funding. Both the local school district and the state Department of Education would need to approve each such project.

The legislation is a big step forward in reform circles since it enables an alternative method of running schools to go forward without resorting to charter schools, and it garnered the support of even the New Jersey Education Association. The state’s largest teachers union has usually been at odds with Christie on several issues.

 Wedding chimes and other proposals

The Democrats have revisited the idea of legalizing same-sex marriage, reintroducing a marriage bill that Senate President Steve Sweeney said he will fully support.  He abstained the first time around, in 2010, and later said that was a mistake.

The Democratic leadership in both chambers said they intend to fast-track the bill in this new legislative session.

Regarding bills that were passed in the final legislative session on Monday, here are some of note:

*A4366 – A wedding license bill, which would enable couples to avoid a 72-hour waiting period.

*S3172/A4436 – A bill that would enable wineries to sell directly to customers and some retail outlets. The bill was the last one to pass the Assembly after some key amendments were agreed upon by both parties, which included reducing the number of retail outlets and ensuring that wineries are required to provide their own shipping mechanism.

*S3115 – a bill that would establish off-track wagering machines in certain North Jersey establishments that serve alcohol, as part of a three-year pilot program.

The program would be limited to bars and restaurants in Bergen, Hudson, Essex, Passaic, Union, Morris, Somerset, Hunterdon, Ocean, Warren and Sussex counties, and northern Middlesex County. Up to 12 locations would be selected to participate, giving the state the full complement of 15 OTW facilities allowable under the 2001 state law.

The bill passed the Senate 34-1. The Assembly approved the measure by a vote of 74-0.

Other bills

Earlier in the week, Christie signed other big bills like Caylee’s Law, which would make it a felony for knowingly not reporting a child’s death, and a bill enabling municipalities to use some of their unspent open space dollars to buy up flood-prone properties.

Pay scales 

And Speaker Sheila Oliver kicked off a new legislative season by promising to push for an increase in the state’s minimum wage.

Christie has said he is willing to talk about a minimum wage proposal from Oliver,  who is calling for increasing it from $7.25 to $8.50.

Christie, however, stopped well short of indicating he would sign such a measure.

Environmental dust-up

The Legislature issued its committee assignments for the new session, with the most noteworthy one probably being the removal of John McKeon, (D-27), West Orange, longtime chairman of the Assembly Environment Committee.

He will be replaced by L. Grace Spencer, (D-29), Newark.

McKeon apparently fell victim to politics, having not sided with Speaker Sheila Oliver during back-room machinations over her leadership.

But the move angered environmentalists so much – McKeon is a longtime ally, and Spencer has scant experience with environmental legislation – that Oliver felt compelled to issue a press release later in the week defending the move.

Weekly Roundup: Week of Jan. 9