Lame-duck hot points: Tuition equality, Sandy recovery, marriage equality

TRENTON – On Tuesday New Jerseyans will pass judgment on the future employment prospects of 120 public servants. On Wednesday attention will turn to what those 120 folks will be doing until the end of the year.

It’s called lame duck, and despite what the label may imply, it could be quite active.

The Senate already had a voting session penciled in for Monday of Thanksgiving week, when the high-profile event is expected to be the full body giving the nod for state Supreme Court nominee Faustino Fernandez-Vina. As of Wednesday, that session had been bumped up a week to Nov. 18. 

Expect a strong showing of support for the Camden Superior Court judge who sailed through the Judiciary Committee unanimously last month, who then will be sworn in to the top court, supplanting Justice Helen Hoens.

In terms of legislation, the bill that has moved to the head of the class is the so-called Dream Act, the proposal to offer the lower, in-state college tuition rates to children of undocumented immigrants.

“One of the greatest concerns is the Dream Act, which I understand will be before the Senate,’’ Assemblyman Gary Schaer said today. “It has passed the Assembly and from what we understand the governor is favorable to the bill.”

And Speaker Sheila Oliver said Tuesday that among other things, the Assembly “will look to complete our work on tuition equality, which I’m especially hopeful can be accomplished now that Gov. Christie has announced support for it.”

Gov. Chris Christie said to the Latino Leadership Alliance of New Jersey last month that he supported the concept as an “obligation’’ to save children from failed educations.

The signal of backing was important, because earlier in the year, the bill encountered strong GOP skepticism during some committee hearings.

The supporters champion it as a matter of educational fairness and economic opportunity.  Opponents claim it is a matter of unfairness to N.J. resident students who already have to fight to gain entry to four-year schools that have limited capacity.

Sue Henderson, president of Jersey City University, said in support during the summer that 88,000 N.J. students who are not citizens will be affected. The in-state rate is $7,500 while the out-of-state tuition rate is $15,000, she said, and she added that passing this bill will benefit the state by reducing incarceration rates, enhancing work forces and improving earnings potential for students.

The bill, A4225, cleared out of the Assembly Budget Committee in June along party lines, 8-4.  A full Assembly vote awaits, and the Senate must take it up.

Called the Tuition Equality Act, this will allow the affected students to pay the lower rate at public colleges if, among other things, they have attended a N.J. high school for at least three years and graduated from a N.J. high school.

There is a related proposal called the Higher Education Citizenship Equality Act, whose purpose is to help students who were born in this country but whose parents do not have legal status here.

The bills would help such students have eligibility for tuition assistance programs.

The lower-chamber bill, A3162, already has passed through Assembly Higher Education and Budget panels.

The Senate version, S1760, has gone through the Higher Education Committee, is before the Budget Committee, and depending on how the bills are amended, there will need to be a reconciling before both chambers vote on them.

But there is another equality issue out there: marriage.

Oh, so you thought that was settled once the Christie administration dropped its legal challenge, leaving the Keystone State as the only Northeast outpost without gay marriage.

Think again.  The thorny problem of religious exceptions has been left dangling in the wind.

That is why Senate Democrats want to push to hold a veto override vote.  The governor vetoed same-sex marriage last year, calling for a voter referendum, which Democratic leadership opposed.

The case began winding its way through state appellate courts once the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated the Defense of Marriage Act, and then once the state high court said it wouldn’t allow a stay of gay marriage pending oral arguments next year, the Attorney General was instructed to run up the white flag.

But as opposed to a few weeks ago, when there was a sense of urgency about the issue, now leading Democrats are talking about a more deliberate approach.

“We will take the days and weeks ahead to evaluate all aspects and potential ramifications of the marriage equality law to determine what follow through is needed. We’re making history, we want to be certain we make it right,” Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg said a week ago.

And Oliver said on Tuesday, “We have to examine what needs to be done with marriage equality following the court rulings.”

Translation: People are actually exchanging vows now, so there won’t be a veto override vote scheduled just to hold one, not unless the Democrats are sure they have the votes.

But Oliver, who is facing a change in leadership with a majority of Democratic Assembly members backing Vincent Prieto for the top role, still has other irons in the fire post-election.

“We also have to take a hard look at wasteful spending that’s apparently been going on at some of the private schools that are taking care of our severely disabled students.

“Earned sick leave is another matter to consider.”

And Sen. Bob Smith and Assemblywoman Grace Spencer, the environmental committees’ chairs, have planned to introduce several bills to address post-Superstorm Sandy recovery problems, mostly dealing with poorly trained public officials and unresponsive insurers and state agencies.

Earlier story:

Dem environmental leaders plan Sandy-related legislation

Lame-duck hot points: Tuition equality, Sandy recovery, marriage equality