Weekly Roundup: Week of May 14

TRENTON – It was one busy week with legislative committees touching on sometimes sensitive subjects and with the release of the past month’s revenue figures. As for the latter, it was hardly a pretty picture.

With the revenues in April being some $230 million short from year-to-date projections, Democrats jumped on the news, saying it serves as proof that Gov. Chris Christie’s much-ballyhooed “comeback” is anything but.

The Treasury Department steadfastly said that one bad month does not make a necessarily bad picture, stressing the importance of looking at the overall trend.  Treasurer Andrew Sidamon-Eristoff will make his thoughts known on the state’s revenues this coming week.

Nonetheless, Senate President Stephen Sweeney said a tax cut is necessary and the Assembly Democrats also stressed the need to have their plan – which Christie has said repeatedly is “dead on arrival” because it includes a tax on millionaires – passed as well.

However, the Budget Committee pulled Sweeney’s tax-cut bill from its Thursday hearing agenda, clearly showing that the Senate Dems are not completely sure the time is ripe for such a tax cut, or at the very least the bill needs tweaking.

Several pieces of legislation were released from various committees the past week.

*Perhaps we have the tanning mom from Nutley to thank for resurrecting the issue, but a bill preventing minors, ages 14 to 18, from using tanning beds at salons made it out of an Assembly committee on Monday.

A sister bill was released by the Senate Health Committee last year.

*While there is some disagreement on the particulars, the overall concept of drug courts made its way forward, as two bills revolving around the issue were released by the Assembly Judiciary Committee.

The drug courts, which Gov. Chris Christie and Democrats support, although they differ on costs and implementation, are aimed at helping non-violent drug offenders receive mandatory treatment and become productive citizens.

The American Civil Liberties Union supported the concept as well, although it made a recommendation to make the courts an option, saying some defendants may prefer going to jail.

*Trying to weed out the actual ones from the ones who are gaming the system, a bill to stamp out “fake farmers” was released by a committee. The bill attempts to revise the criteria for the erstwhile Farmland Assessment bill, which gives farmers as much as a 98 percent discount on property taxes.

Critics, though, point to instances in which people or businesses have been attaining the bare minimum requirements in order to qualify for a huge tax break.

*The Senate Budget Committee released a bill that would repeal a 2010 law allowing the state to claim any unspent funds of gift cards after two years.

The bill was introduced by Sen. Paul Sarlo, (D-36), Wood-Ridge, who originally supported the prior bill, but called its repeal a “no-brainer.” 

The law became a focal point of controversy when American Express announced earlier this year it would stop issuing gift cards in the state.

*In an attempt to put a stop to the growing practice of municipalities going around the 2 percent property tax cap, a bill was released by the Senate Budget Committee.

S1914 would prevent local officials from moving spending items that are normally part of one’s property taxes, such as garbage pick-up, to a “user fee” section, and would mandate that all such user fees be part of the property tax cap calculations.

The League of Municipalities opposes the bill, saying it would give towns one less tool to help control costs.

Health care

Sens. Loretta Weinberg, (D-37) of Teaneck, and Nia Gill, (D-34), Montclair, once again called for greater attention to the issue of improving women’s access to health care.

Among other things, they want $7 million restored that has led to the closure of six family health clinics and reduced services at others.

They say the money is there, even in a tough economy. Weinberg said money is lapsing into the general fund rather than being spent on its intended purposes.

Bridge work

An unusual coalition – lawmakers and advocates who usually are in opposition – has formed to oppose the impending $330 million project to replace the free Scudder Falls Bridge with a new one that will be reliant on tolls.

Environmentalists, such as the N.J. Sierra Club, say the project will lead to increased pollution and exacerbate the Delaware River’s notorious flooding problems.

Senators, such as Republican Michael Doherty and Democrat Shirley Turner, said they suspect this is a ploy to lead up to a systemwide toll increase that will generate money through user fees when tax increases are out of the question.

And Steve Lonegan, head of the conservative Americans for Prosperity, said they strongly oppose the entire practice of bonding for huge amounts of money without voter approval.

But the Delaware River Joint Toll Bridge Commission said in response that the project is necessary to help motorists who are enduring lengthy traffic backups, and is part of an integrated plan to address traffic problems throughout the region.

Anti-bullying

Sen. Diane Allen, (R-7), Edgewater Park, a strong supporter of anti-bullying legislation, wants to strengthen the law.

She said she will introduce a bill to address the problem of teachers accused of bullying students whose cases languish for months and even years without resolution.

She said that she respects someone’s due process rights, but sees no reason why these allegations should take years to investigate and resolve.

Her bill would shorten the time greatly, mandating prompt and efficient investigations that would benefit the accused as well as the student.

The teachers union has raised reservations about the rights of teachers being trampled upon, Allen said, but she maintained rights will be respected.

The bill, she said, is about ensuring that the few teachers who have no business being around children are removed.

Weekly Roundup: Week of May 14