Drug court, permit extension, mobile gaming among bills facing Senate vote

TRENTON – The Senate on Thursday is expected to vote on a variety of bills focusing on an array of subjects, including drug courts, changing the limits of popular tax credit programs, controversial environmental issues, and gambling, among other subjects.

Environment

The Senate will vote on a resolution stating that the controversial “waiver rule” from regulations is “inconsistent with legislative intent.”

The rule would provide some flexibility to developers from regulations currently prohibiting development in various instances. Applications would be judged and decided by the Department of Environmental Protection, which proposed the waiver rule. The Assembly approved a similar resolution at its session last Thursday.

Then there is the permit extension bill, which was taken off the Senate’s agenda at its session in March, and which would extend the life of permits that couldn’t be acted upon within their original time frame.

The bill, S743, would grant extensions on government permits for two additional years, from Dec. 31, 2012 until Dec. 31, 2014, on projects not yet undertaken.

Groups like the state Chamber of Commerce support the bill, stating that it would give developers more time to obtain financing for projects stalled in a tepid economy.

But environmental groups are in opposition, fearing it will give developers a chance to evade updated environmental regulations and even resurrect some projects that would otherwise have expired.

Amendments to this bill include expanding the geographical areas in which approvals are extended, and including additional types of approvals qualifying for the extension.

Another amendment would clarify language regarding the exception from a class of exclusions for permits issued pursuant to the “Flood Hazard Area Control Act” authorizing work on property owned by the government or federal government.

Drug Courts

Sen. Ray Lesniak’s answer to Gov. Chris Christie’s desire to have drug courts established will also be heard before the full Senate.

Lesniak’s bill, S881, would establish a two-year pilot program for mandatory admission to drug court for certain offenders. The bill would also allow more people to be eligible for drug court by enabling judges to decide who can be admitted into the program.

The program would be set up in a couple of counties and then reviewed to determine its effectiveness. An amendment was added that would enable the judge to resentence a person to special probation.

Additionally, these amendments would permit a person who was convicted but not sentenced on or after the effective date to request to be sentenced to special probation.

Gambling devices

The Senate will also vote on S1323, which would enable customers to have access to electronic versions of casino games on mobile gaming devices within an approved hotel, after the bettor sets up an account.

At a Senate hearing last month, Sen. Jim Whelan, (D-2), of Atlantic City, the bill’s sponsor, described it as an “attempt to recognize the reality” that young adults are accustomed to using handheld communications devices for more and more purposes.

The Casino Association of New Jersey also supports the bill.  

There are various Senate amendments, which were voted on last Thursday. They include:

      * remove language that would have permitted agreements between casinos   and casino service industry enterprises which would have provided for the payment to the service industry enterprise an interest or share of the proceeds from the operation of slot machines;

      * clarify language concerning mobile gaming devices, stating that  in-person wagers are paid by the patron to the casino and the in-person winnings are paid to the patron by the casino;

      * forbid the use of mobile gaming devices in parking garages or parking areas of a casino hotel facility;

      * omit any changes to the definition of “gross revenue” from the bill; and

      * provide that a collection agency, working under the supervision of an attorney representing a casino, may be retained to collect a debt or bring action for such collection.

Urban Transit Hub/Grow New Jersey

The Senate will also vote on bill S1562 that calls for expanding the tax credit limits on two popular incentive programs – the Urban Transit Hub program and Grow New Jersey.

For the UTH program, the proposal is to increase the maximum amount from $1.5 billion to $2.5 billion. For “Grow New Jersey,” the tax credit maximums would increase from $200 million to $400 million.

Qualifying businesses must have made at least $50 million in capital investments, and have at least 250 full-time employees. Businesses could not receive the credits if they receive other grants, such as the Business Employment Incentive Grant, according to the bill.

Foreclosure bill

Another bill that will be taken up is S1566, also known as “The New Jersey Residential Foreclosure Transformation Act,” which would speed up the foreclosure process on certain properties. Amendments to this bill include:

*A requirement that a lender prove that the mortgaged real estate is vacant and has been abandoned.

The amendments state a property cannot be considered “vacant and abandoned” if (1) there is an unoccupied building which is undergoing construction, renovation and is complying with all applicable ordinances, codes, regulations, and statutes;

      (2) the building is occupied on a seasonal basis or

      (3) there is a building that is secure, but is the subject of a probate action, action to quiet title, or other ownership dispute.

      The amendments also enable a sheriff to sell the property within 75 days after it’s been determined by a court the property is vacant and abandoned. If it becomes apparent that the sheriff cannot comply with this timeframe, the foreclosing plaintiff may apply to the court for an order appointing a Special Master or judicial agent to hold the foreclosure sale.

Unemployment insurance

To avoid having the Unemployment Insurance trust fund become insolvent, bill S1121 will be voted on. The bill addresses an inequity regarding the law used to set employers’ tax rates under unemployment insurance. Employers with positive reserve ratios are subsidizing those with a negative ratio, a burden that is hampering efforts to restore unemployment insurance fund solvency.

The Office of Legislative Services has estimated that this bill would generate an additional $26.8 million in fiscal year 2013 for the trust fund, an additional $27.6 million in fiscal year 2014, and an additional $28.4 million in fiscal year 2015.

The committee amended the bill to add a series of new, lower UI tax rates for those employers with higher reserve ratios, as well as for new employers, beginning on or after July 1, 2012.  The amendment has the effect of rewarding employers that maintain higher reserve ratios and making the bill revenue neutral.

The UI trust fund has been heavily tapped into, in the wake of the Great Recession, and the state even had to borrow money from the Fed to keep up. Employers are expected to see higher taxes for unemployment insurance under a previously agreed plan.

Drug court, permit extension, mobile gaming among bills facing Senate vote