Key bills in committee: tuition equality, medical marijuana, RGGI resolutions

TRENTON – Policy and politics are never far apart. 

On Thursday in Statehouse corridors they’ll be walking hand in hand.

Committees will drop the gavel in lame-duck session on a plethora of bills with far-reaching implications: tuition equality, prevailing wages, alternative energy, shared services, medical marijuana, and more.

Tuition equality

In the Assembly Budget Committee, the highly controversial tuition equality bill will receive its first public airing since the governor did – according to some bill supporters – a flip-flop.

Pre-election Gov. Chris Christie professed support for the concept; post-election he dissed the specific bill in the Senate.

Supporters led by Senate President Steve Sweeney and Sen. Teresa Ruiz said nothing changed but the governor’s target: He was seeking re-election as governor this year and courted minority votes as part of that effort; he will be seeking election as president in the coming years and will be courting conservative support then.

But Christie at a press conference last week was adamant that nothing had changed in his position.  The bill winding its way through the Senate goes far beyond just allowing in-state tuition rates for undocumented students, it also would allow them access to financial aid, the Tuition Aid Grants.

In fact, the bill in the Senate would go far beyond what President Obama has talked about and would make New Jersey an “outlier,’’ Christie said.

“Bull,’’ Sweeney said.

The bill passed the Senate but still has to move through the lower chamber. 

The bill that will be in the Assembly Budget Committee Thursday differs from the one that passed in the Senate; it does not include language at this point regarding access to tuition aid, so amending it to bring it into agreement with the upper-chamber bill will be on the table.


Prevailing wage

When a lawmaker is mentioned as a potential 2017 gubernatorial candidate, every bill that the legislator sponsors carries an added dimension of interest.

Senate President Steve Sweeney will have a bill before the Labor Committee Thursday – S3012 ­- that would stop work at job sites whose employers are not paying the prevailing wage.

The bill would have work halted at all sites where a violation is occurring until the employer agrees to pay workers the prevailing wage for their efforts.

Under the bill, a penalty of $5,000 a day could be imposed by the Department of Labor.

Sweeney, who forged strong bipartisan ties and accomplished much legislatively with the Republican governor in Christie’s first term, is possibly looking beyond Christie’s second term and toward a possible primary match-up against Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop.

A bill that deals with a key organized labor issue such as prevailing wage could possibly go a long way toward burnishing his already strong labor resume.  Sweeney, who hails from the Ironworkers’ union, enjoyed much blue-collar support on election day.


Alternative energy

The Senate Environment Committee will consider three proposals – constitutional amendments – to change the state’s energy direction.

Two of them – SCR 162 and SCR 146 – are similar but both would ask voters whether they want to change the state Constitution to require New Jersey’s participation in the Northeast cooperative known as the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. Christie yanked New Jersey from the RGGI in 2011.

Another – SCR 165 – would ask voters to amend the Constitution to allocate either $200 million or 2.4 percent of the sales tax in a year, whichever is lower, toward funding open space, historic site and farm preservation.

The idea of allowing voters to alter the Constitution is seen by some as a way for Democrats to get around vetoes of the governor.  Democrats control the Legislature but not by veto-proof majorities.

They used that tactic successfully this year and put before the voters a constitutional amendment question about increasing the minimum wage.

Christie has turned back attempts to re-enter the RGGI, arguing market forces, not subsidies, are a better approach to energy funding.


Medical marijuana

Assemblywoman Linda Stender has before the Assembly Health Committee a bill to expand the New Jersey medical marijuana  program to out-of-state residents and allow patients to use medical marijuana legally obtained elsewhere.

Gov. Chris Christie long ago drew the line on this issue.  New Jersey has a medical marijuana program that supporters complain has been too slow to get up and running.

Christie has said he will not allow New Jersey’s program to become out of control and abused in the way some programs out West have become.

He already turned back a bill this year with a conditional veto that would have expanded the program to allow medical marijuana to be administered to juveniles suffering from rare maladies that cannot be treated otherwise. That bill, including his changes, received concurrence from legislators and eventually was signed.

Stender’s bill would allow a qualifying patient from Pennsylvania, for instance, to travel across the Delaware River and purchase medical marijuana here.

Not gonna happen, Christie essentially said at a recent press conference. 

Sen. Nicholas Scutari has introduced the companion bill in the Senate.


Shared services

Sen. Bob Gordon, who just survived a full frontal assault from Christie in the election season, has a bill up before the Community and Urban Affairs Committee – S2679 – that would make it easier for municipalities to share services.

The Princetons have tied the knot since a 2007 law was enacted. This bill argues that there are roadblock provisions in that original law that have to be moved in order for more such consolidations to occur.

Among other things, his bill would make it easier for towns to equalize their tax rates assessments, existing debt could be reapportioned within special taxing districts, and a fiscal consolidation study would be made discretionary rather than mandatory. Key bills in committee: tuition equality, medical marijuana, RGGI resolutions