Lawmakers are back in Trenton, and they’re ready to make deals.
The New Jersey Legislature is in its lame-duck session, a 10-week period sandwiched between the November election and January’s new legislative session.
It’s often a time of heavy activity, when legislators pack the back rooms of the Statehouse trying to resolve a number of controversial bills that couldn’t move earlier.
Politicians have the wiggle room to work on the hard stuff now because lame duck is the furthest point from the next election. The hope is that any anger that arises from deals struck now will dissipate by the next time voters head to the polls.
They are also up against the clock, because any bill that doesn’t get a final vote before the session ends in mid-January must be reintroduced and start its way up the legislative ladder from scratch.
Here’s what may come up.
The quest to make weed legal in New Jersey has been bumpy.
In March, a plan to legalize marijuana fell apart in the final moments when Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) pulled the bill, realizing it was short of the 21 votes needed to pass the upper chamber.
Legislative leaders have vowed to bring the issue back up. A number of political staffers predict the Legislature will go halfway, voting to decriminalize recreational use of small amounts of marijuana , and taking steps to put full legalization before 2020 voters in a referendum.
Voter turnout is expected to be high, with President Donald Trump up for reelection. That could bode well for marijuana legalization, since the New Jersey electorate in presidential years is heavily Democratic.
Driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants
A bill that would allow undocumented immigrants to get driver’s licenses looks primed to pass.
Gov. Phil Murphy and advocates have long said the policy is a “no-brainer" — more registered drivers means safer roads, more insured motorists, and increased state revenue.
There are about 466,000 undocumented immigrants of driving age in New Jersey, according to a study by left-leaning think tank New Jersey Policy Perspective, and about 233,000 are predicted to become legal drivers within the first three years of the law’s implementation.
New Jersey would collect more than $18 million in that span through increased license and registration fees, according to the study.
Some Republican lawmakers oppose the bill, arguing it would make the state more attractive for undocumented immigrants.
One of the biggest stories in New Jersey politics this year has been the controversial Christie administration tax-incentive program meant to lure and retain businesses in the Garden State.
A series of Inquirer, New York Times, and WNYC/ProPublica investigations into the program, called Grow NJ, revealed corruption and mismanagement, where billions of tax dollars were funneled to New Jersey businesses without taxpayers getting much in return. The New Jersey Comptroller’s Office conducted an audit.
The program was allowed to expire, but the governor has been at a standoff with top Democratson what to do next. Murphy wants a cap on tax incentives targeted to small businesses and start-ups in certain sectors. More moderate Democrats want a similar program to what was in place, with more accountability and transparency. According to one high-level legislative source,a compromise could be passed.
Banning plastic bags
In August 2018, Murphy vetoed a bill that would have imposed a five-cent tax on single-use plastic and paper bags, saying it didn’t go far enough.
Meanwhile, many towns have banned or curbed the use of plastic and paper bags.
Around 65% of New Jersey residents support a ban on single-use plastic bags in theory, according to a Monmouth University poll, but when presented with details, residents are less enthusiastic. Just 31% favored a ban on single-use bags, while 27% supported the idea of a small fee, according to the poll.
Given there is much to consider — from the definition of “single-use” bag, to the effects on low-income families who may not be able to afford reusable bags or a tax on single-use ones — some legislative sources are unsure New Jersey will become the ninth state to ban plastic bags.
Benefits and pension reform for public employees
Top Democrats are split on how to reform health and retirement benefits for public sector workers.
Senate President Sweeney has his “Path to Progress” plan, which would raise the retirement age to 67 for public employees and teachers, and move those with less than five years of service into a 401(k)-like hybrid pension plan. He also wants to move public employees out of the state’s health plan with highest coverage into the second highest.
Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D., Middlesex) backs a plan that lowers out-of-pocket expenses on health premiums for public employees.
Currently, they pay 3% to 35% of their annual health premiums out of pocket, depending on their salary. Coughlin would like to change that to 2% to 8% of an employee’s salary. His plan is backed by the state’s teacher’s union, the New Jersey Education Association, which has caused friction with his Senate ally.
If no deal can be reached, experts think Coughlin might seek a ballot referendum. That would require a majority of lawmakers, in two consecutive years, to agree on a proposed constitutional amendment to let voters decide.