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E-cigarette tax, bail reform advance in N.J. Senate

TRENTON - Senate panels advanced legislation Monday that would impose a tax on electronic cigarettes and change New Jersey's criminal justice system so judges can deny bail in certain circumstances.

TRENTON - Senate panels advanced legislation Monday that would impose a tax on electronic cigarettes and change New Jersey's criminal justice system so judges can deny bail in certain circumstances.

Gov. Christie, a Republican, has expressed support for both ideas. His $34.4 billion budget proposal for the fiscal year that begins July 1 projects that imposing the tobacco-product wholesale tax on e-cigarettes would generate $35 million in revenue for the state.

The bill that advanced Monday would impose a wholesale sales tax rate of 75 percent on e-cigarettes. Currently, consumers pay only the state's 7 percent sales tax when they buy the nicotine product. The bill also would raise the tax on other forms of tobacco, such as cigars and snuff, to be comparable with the tax on cigarettes, which is $2.70 a pack.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced last month that it planned to regulate e-cigarettes with age restrictions, warning labels, and other rules and restrictions.

The FDA also says the product's health effects are not yet known, and critics of the New Jersey legislation say e-cigarettes should not be taxed until more studies are completed and the agency develops its regulatory framework.

Some people say they use e-cigarettes to help them quit smoking.

New Jersey already bans the sale of e-cigarettes to minors and their consumption in public places and workplaces. The devices are growing in popularity; use of e-cigarettes by middle school and high school students more than doubled from 2011 to 2012, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Small-business owners told the Health, Human Services and Senior Citizens Committee that the tax would hurt their bottom line, and some consumers complained that it would diminish the incentive to quit smoking.

Christie and legislators have framed the issue as a matter of "tax fairness." The committee passed the bill on a 5-2-2 vote.

"Hopefully, by increasing the tax on these items, we can curb the usage of electronic cigarettes and keep young people from starting an unhealthy and often deadly habit," said State Sen. Joseph Vitale (D., Middlesex), chairman of the committee.

A measure that would allow certain defendants to be held without bail - if voters agreed to amend the state constitution - also advanced out of committee Monday.

Currently, courts must grant bail to defendants, under a right defined in the constitution. The resolution sponsored by Sen. Donald Norcross (D., Camden) that cleared the Budget and Appropriations Committee would ask voters to approve a constitutional change to allow a defendant to be held without bail if a court determined that no amount of bail could ensure the person's appearance in court or protect the safety of others.

That change was recommended this year by a committee chaired by Chief Justice Stuart Rabner. The resolution does not include other recommendations from Rabner's committee, which called for judges to use a "risk-based" system to set bail based on objective factors, as opposed to a system contingent upon a defendant's financial resources.

Advocates for that approach say poor defendants who pose little threat to the community are jailed before trial because they cannot afford bail.

Roseanne Scotti, state director for the Drug Policy Alliance, said Monday that 75 percent of people in New Jersey jails are pretrial defendants who could not afford bail. Of those people, half were unable to pay "nominal" amounts of bail, Scotti said.

"We believe it makes no sense morally, or fiscally, to warehouse thousands of people for months on end," she said.

Scotti and others called for legislation to also specify that defendants have the right to be held "under the least restrictive conditions possible."

Sen. Sandra Cunningham (D., Hudson) said another bill, still in the works, would address that concern.

Christie has repeatedly voiced support for bail reform, saying that courts should have the right to jail violent pretrial offenders. A spokesman for the governor, Kevin Roberts, did not comment on the Senate resolution Monday, but called it "an encouraging sign that the Legislature is taking a serious look at these issues, as the governor has been calling for them for years now.

"We look forward to working with leadership to shape meaningful bail reform that protects our communities and brings greater fairness and protections to the justice system," Roberts said.

Christie is said to also be considering proposed legislation that would bar employers for asking about a job applicant's criminal record until after extending a conditional offer of employment, according to Cunningham and advocates of the measure.

The measure, referred to as "ban the box," did not advance in the Legislature last year. But supporters are optimistic, saying Christie has expressed a desire to pass the bill by June along with bail reform measures.

Roberts did not respond to a question Monday about the governor's stance on the legislation.