Home>Feature>Coughlin delays Assembly quorum, giving more time for marijuana negotiations

Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin. (Photo: Kevin Sanders for the New Jersey Globe)

Coughlin delays Assembly quorum, giving more time for marijuana negotiations

By Nikita Biryukov, February 05 2021 5:06 pm

This story was updated with comment from Coughlin at 6:08 p.m.

Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-Woodbridge) will delay the chamber’s Monday quorum until Feb. 18 to provide more time for negotiations on marijuana legalization, a source in each chamber told the New Jersey Globe.

“Significant progress has been made and we are hopeful that concerns raised will be able to be addressed,” Coughlin said in a statement released after this article was published. “I remain optimistic an agreement will be reached and that fair and responsible legislation will be advanced which will facilitate A-21 and A-1897 becoming law.”

Those bills, ones legalizing and decriminalizing adult-use marijuana, were sent to Gov. Phil Murphy 51 days ago, on Dec. 17. They’ve remained unsigned as Murphy and legislators failed to bridge an impasse over penalties for underage marijuana use.

The Assembly’s Feb. 8 meeting to introduce bills and conduct other procedural business became a deadline, one that lawmakers involved in marijuana talks were unable to meet even as they touted measured progress in negotiations. Bills that sit on the governor’s desk for 45 days become law when the chamber they originated in calls a quorum.

It’s not clear whether Coughlin is willing to repeat the maneuver if lawmakers again fail to reach a deal. Friday’s delay cancelled hearings before nine panels, including the Assembly Health Committee.

They’ve been rescheduled for Feb. 18 alongside an Assembly voting session. The Senate intends to meet for a vote the same day.

In an uncommon show of political strength, Black legislators in the Senate in early January objected to provisions of an earlier cleanup bill they feared would increase police interaction with Black and Brown youth.

State Sen. Ron Rice (D-Newark), a legalization opponent who chairs the Legislative Black Caucus, likened curbside warnings and stationhouse adjustments — intervention methods meant to change behavior without criminal or civil penalties — to stop-and-frisk, an infamous New York City policy that was deemed unconstitutional because of its disproportionate use against persons of color.

Its Senate sponsors, State Sens. Teresa Ruiz (D-Newark) and Nicholas Scutari (D-Linden) pulled their support for the measure over those concerns, effectively killing the bill just three days before it was expected to see a vote before the full chamber.

The new cleanup bill, sponsored by Assemblyman Benjie Wimberly (D-Paterson) and advanced through an Assembly committee last week, keeps those provisions in place but renames them to point-of-violation warnings and juvenile interventions.

The new legislation, which was backed by two other Assembly LBC members, also lowered fines levied on 18, 19 and 20-year-olds found in possession of marijuana from up to $250 or $500 to discrete fines of $50 and $100, depending on the amount of marijuana.

Advocates feared the range of fines present in the original cleanup bill would lead to disparate penalties for underage possession, including along racial lines.

While the bill has received a warmer reception than its substantially similar predecessor among Black lawmakers in the Senate, it’s still viewed as a framework for further negotiations.

Scutari is willing to move a legalization cleanup bill so long as he has support from a majority of the chamber’s five Black senators, but while opposition to the measure within the LBC differs, they’ve so far held fast.

A source familiar with the caucus’s discussions earlier this week told the New Jersey Globe Black lawmakers don’t feel pressed by the quorum deadline, or any others.

The quorum threatened to push lawmakers up against another procedural cutoff. While the Assembly advanced the new cleanup legislation last week, no equivalent measure has been introduced in the Senate.

The deadline to do so was effectively 11:59 p.m. on Friday, which would fulfill the legally-mandated one-day waiting period for bills on second reading. Lawmakers could have introduced the bill on Saturday, but a senior Senate source emphatically said the chamber wouldn’t convene for a quorum over the weekend.

They could introduce a bill later providing they secure enough votes for an emergency — that’s 30 votes in the Senate and 60 in the Assembly. That’s not likely to happen. The legalization bill cleared both chambers in votes that largely fell along party lines, and Republicans have continued to voice concerns about a lack of employer protections sought by business groups.

The delay comes amid threats of a veto from Murphy, who planned to strike the bill on Monday ahead of the Assembly’s quorum, a move that would have sent negotiations back to the drawing board.

Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-West Deptford) last week told the New Jersey Globe his chamber would not concur with a conditional veto on marijuana legalization, but a senior administration official told the New Jersey Globe the timing of Murphy’s veto is expected to shift along with the Assembly’s quorum.

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