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Affordable-housing bill pulled after Christie's veto threat

TRENTON - Efforts to overhaul New Jersey's controversial affordable-housing rules by the end of the year crumbled Monday when a housing bill was pulled from the Senate voting agenda hours after Gov. Christie said he would veto it if it passed without further changes.

TRENTON - Efforts to overhaul New Jersey's controversial affordable-housing rules by the end of the year crumbled Monday when a housing bill was pulled from the Senate voting agenda hours after Gov. Christie said he would veto it if it passed without further changes.

Democratic leaders said they expected to vote on a revised plan Jan. 6.

Christie, who campaigned on a platform including affordable-housing reform, called the bill "just a joke" and questioned why lawmakers had not approved an earlier version passed by the Senate six months ago, which then was extensively amended in the Assembly.

The issue was among several pushed by Christie - including promoting Atlantic City, streamlining civil service rules, and adopting measures aimed at lowering property taxes - that remained unresolved as lawmakers left town for the holidays. Christie voiced frustration that the Legislature had not acted more quickly in all of those areas, though he is scheduled to sign a bill Tuesday that marks a major compromise by the Legislature on capping police and fire employee arbitration awards.

He berated the Legislature for not passing his full "tool kit" of property-tax proposals and said the clock he has been displaying at his town-hall meetings to count the days it had to pass them before the end of 2010 will now run into negative time.

"Now, their homework is overdue," Christie said.

Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) rejected Christie's criticisms, saying after the session that lawmakers had accomplished a great deal this year and had been willing to work with the governor, a Republican.

The housing bill would have eliminated the Council on Affordable Housing, which enforces towns' court-directed obligations to provide low-income houses, and ended a 2.5 percent fee on nonresidential development that helps offset the cost.

Some critics, including the Fair Share Housing Center of Cherry Hill, have noted that the action would greatly reduce towns' obligation to provide affordable homes, though the proposal maintains housing quotas.

The Assembly - which passed the bill Dec. 13 during its final session of the year - made substantial revisions to the measure since it passed the Senate in June. Christie said he would sign only the original legislation.

The affordable-housing debate stems from state Supreme Court rulings in the 1970s and 1980s determining that towns had a constitutional obligation to provide low- and moderate-income housing. Developers, housing advocates, lawmakers, and Christie have clashed all year on trying to improve a system that critics say is costly and ineffective.

The Assembly worked to amend the housing legislation in recent months after the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services issued at least two opinions before the Senate vote in June questioning whether the bill was constitutional.

Housing advocate Staci Berger, who opposed the original version of the bill, said that the latest effort was a "great compromise" and that it was disappointing the governor would try to stop it so late in the process.

New Jersey is noncompetitive for jobs because it lacks affordable housing, said Berger, a director of advocacy and policy at the Housing and Community Development Network in Trenton.

Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D., Union), an architect of the housing bill, said both Christie and the New Jersey League of Municipalities had raised legitimate questions about how the bill directs towns to comply with the Supreme Court's standards.

He said the bill that ultimately would go the governor would be like the original legislation, "if not in form then certainly in substance."

The Senate whizzed through about three dozen other bills in less than two hours.

Lawmakers gave final approval to a measure requiring all future employees of municipal, county, and state governments to live in New Jersey. Public workers could apply to a three-member panel for an exemption involving cases of "extreme hardship."

The Senate also granted final legislative approval to a bill directing the state to apply to the federal government to expand its Medicaid program to offer family-planning services for people with incomes three times the federal poverty level. The current state plan covers only those who fall within the income cap of 133 percent of the federal poverty level.

Christie cut $7.5 million in family-planning money from the budget that was adopted in June, and a group of Democratic lawmakers has been pushing back since he vetoed legislation in July that would have restored the funds.

Legislators also voted for bills that would help preserve Barnegat Bay, increase penalties for motorists who send text messages or talk on handheld phones, and ban businesses - with some exceptions - from checking employees' credit reports.

When Republican senators made procedural maneuvers that would have forced a Senate vote on several bills related to curbing public spending, the Democratic majority voted to table their motions. The bills would have imposed a 2 percent cap on state government spending, eased civil service requirements, and encouraged more shared services, among other things.

The Legislature is expected to come to an agreement on changes to civil service, vote on a raft of measures on Atlantic City tourism and casino regulations, and approve an economic-recovery package when it next meets in January.