Weekly Roundup: Week of June 24

TRENTON – The Legislature and the governor were in agreement on the budget this past week, as Gov. Chris Christie said he will not use his line-item veto power to redline anything in the negotiated spending plan.

The budget stands at $32.9 billion with about a third of that going toward school funding.

However, there is no money earmarked for a tax cut.

While there was agreement on one of the biggest items of state government, other issues remained up in the air.

The controversial business incentives program legislation intended to spur economic growth and make it easier for smaller businesses to qualify for grants and tax breaks ran into some proverbial headwinds among environmental groups, who fear the bill will open up sensitive areas to development.  

S2583/A3680 expands two economic development incentive programs: the Grow New Jersey Assistance Program and the Economic Redevelopment and Growth Grant Program. It calls for phasing out the Urban Transit Hub Tax Credit Program, the Business Retention and Relocation Assistance Grant Program and the Business Employment Incentive Program.

Among other aspects of the bill:

*Prior to the Transit Hub program phase-out, the overall cap on the tax credits to businesses would increase from $1.75 billion to $2.5 billion.

*The Grow N.J. program would become the state’s primary business attraction program. Its $200 million tax credit cap would be lifted.

*Among other things, a requirement of a minimum of 100 new or retained jobs would be changed for a number of jobs applicable to the business in question;

*And the current $5,000 tax credit per year for each job would be replaced with a $1,500 to $5,000 tax credit per year for each job.

The Senate passed an amended bill Thursday, and then Assembly members huddled in caucus for much of Thursday trying to find votes to pass it as well.  Environmentalists won some points in the version that finally made it through the lower chamber, but now the Senate will have to come back at some point – possibly the week after next – and vote again on it.

Also put to the side was a plan to use a portion of sales tax revenue to purchase open space. However, Democrats in the Assembly balked at the plan, and a vote was not taken on the original bill. The Senate had passed it by a 36-2 vote.

The controversial plan to disband the trustees board of Rutgers University, which was proposed in a bill from Senate President Steve Sweeney,  failed to come up for a vote.

Both Sweeney and Christie have said the governing mechanism of Rutgers University is confusing and the Senate President has called for getting rid of the very large governing body of the state’s largest university, which serves in a mostly advisory capacity. Their responsibilities would be turned over to the more influential Board of Governors.

Rutgers University has threatened to sue, saying the proposal would violate the Rutgers Act,  which guarantees that both governing bodies exist for the sake of checks and balances.

Christie will have to decide on several controversial bills, such as loosening the criteria for providing medical marijuana to child patients and banning the so-called gay conversion therapy. But he did sign several other pieces of legislation, such as a bill that would essentially double fines for talking or texting on a cell phone while driving, closing down landfills that pose a public health hazard, and cardiac screenings for young athletes.

Education Reform

In its goal of providing alternatives to failing public schools, the Senate Budget Committee narrowly released legislation concerning bonds for so-called Renaissance school projects, which allow the cities of Trenton, Newark and Camden to work with non-profits on educational opportunities.

The bill included new amendments stating that bonds in some projects would be subject to voter approval.

Legislation was also released on the DWI interlock mechanisms that would improve public safety by having them installed sooner rather than later.

Both houses of the Legislature approved the $715 million in bonds that will go to higher education institutions to upgrade their facilities.

In addition, Speaker Shelia Oliver’s resolution calling on the higher education secretary to review the two religious schools that are also eligible for the financial assistance was OK’d along party lines.

Gay marriage

In the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to invalidate the Defense of Marriage Act, supporters of gay marriage took to the Statehouse to call on the Legislature and Christie to take the step that a lot of other states took: legalize gay marriage.

As on prior occasions, the supporters of the move stressed the argument that civil unions fall short of the many benefits a marriage would provide.

Christie hasn’t changed course on the issue, whatsoever.

Assemblyman Reed Gusciora (D-15) of Trenton called the high court’s decision “an essential step.”

“While New Jersey is still only one of two states in the Northeast without same-sex marriage, this landmark decision by the Supreme Court recognizes the rights and privileges of all loving, committed couples who currently have marriage licenses,” Gusciora said. “Hopefully this decision will provide greater traction for New Jersey in acquiring the same equality.”

  Weekly Roundup: Week of June 24