Home>Feature>Here’s what went down at the statehouse yesterday, other than the budget

The Statehouse Annex in Trenton. (Photo: Joey Fox for the New Jersey Globe).

Here’s what went down at the statehouse yesterday, other than the budget

Abortion legislation, a Liberty State Park task force, and election bills all passed committee

By Joey Fox and George Christopher, June 28 2022 4:19 pm

With the budget deadline looming on Thursday, the focus in Trenton is firmly on the state budget, which was finally released and approved in committee last night after hours of waiting.

But over the course of three different hours-long meetings, committees in both chambers took significant steps towards passing a bevy of other hugely important bills and nominations. Here’s a look at some of what passed out of committee, and what’s scheduled to come for a full vote tomorrow in what will likely be the legislature’s final voting session before the summer recess.

Abortion bills

Two bills protecting New Jersey abortion providers and abortions performed within the state passed committees in both the Assembly and Senate, the result of a last-minute decision to move abortion legislation possibly spurred by Friday’s Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade. 

The bills were posted in Senate committee on Saturday, and in Assembly committee just hours before they were heard yesterday. In each chamber, several legislators abstained, including four Republicans and one Democrat, modestly pro-life State Sen. Fred Madden (D-Washington).

Both bills are scheduled for a vote in both chambers tomorrow – meaning that, after months of inaction, abortion legislation is likely to reach Gov. Phil Murphy within days. Though other Murphy proposals like a public abortion fund and an insurance mandate may not be moving forward, it’s still a victory for the governor given that Senate President Nick Scutari (D-Linden) said he was pessimistic on the fate of abortion legislation earlier this month.

Elections package

An unwieldy package of bills overhauling various elements of the state’s elections and campaign finance system took possibly their final step through committee yesterday, with five bills passing the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee.

Four of the bills are part of Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-Woodbridge)’s package: one bill requires increased review of death records before an election, another removes inactive absentee voters from permanent mail-in voter lists, a third prohibits unaffiliated voters from receiving absentee primary ballots, and a fourth requires enhanced online reporting of votes and allows for the canvassing of absentee ballots before Election Day.

The fifth, on the other hand, is a bill spearheaded by Scutari and Senate Minority Leader Steve Oroho (R-Franklin) called the Elections Transparency Act. Among other things, the bill would require outside campaign spenders to report expenditures and contributions of more than $1,000, doubles existing campaign contribution limits, and sunsets any existing laws “limiting the awarding of public contracts to business entities that have made a [campaign] contribution.”

The bill drew harsh criticism from several voting rights advocates at yesterday’s hearing, who said that more money shouldn’t be injected into politics and that the state’s pay-to-play regulations should be made stronger, not weaker.

“I can’t believe how terrible this bill is – it is so bad,” New Jersey Working Families Party State Director Sue Altman testified. “Sunsetting pay-to-play provisions in New Jersey and drastically increasing the limits that companies can give to county party systems is a major, major problem.”

Nevertheless, the bill passed easily, as did the other four election bills that came up before the committee; State Sen. Sandra Cunningham (D-Jersey City) abstained on the Elections Transparency Act and one other bill.

Virtually every elections-related bill from this session – including the Elections Transparency Act, six of Coughlin’s bills, and a cohort of unrelated election reform bills that have moved forward alongside the official package – are due for a vote in the Senate tomorrow, where they’re near-guaranteed to pass. The Assembly, which has already passed most of the same legislation, is also taking up one bill from Coughlin’s package that was excluded last time around. 

But missing from the Assembly schedule for tomorrow is the Elections Transparency Act, which originated in the Senate and only just passed the Assembly Budget Committee. That could change in the next 24 hours, of course, but it’s a sign that Assembly leadership may be less than comfortable with Scutari’s and Oroho’s proposal.

Liberty State Park

A bill establishing the Liberty State Park Design Task Force came before both the Senate and Assembly budget committees, and was among the most contentious of any bill discussed.

The bill, which would appropriate $50 million (down from $250 million) for the refurbishment of Liberty State Park in Jersey City, has received pushback from environmental groups who say the park needs safeguards from privatization and from Paul Fireman, a billionaire who has long sought to expand his golf course onto part of the park. 

In the Assembly Budget Committee, a massive number of people registered their opposition to the bill, most of whom were not present at the meeting. The number wishing to testify in favor of the bill was smaller in number, but larger in attendance.

Speaking in support of the measure was attorney and former Pittsburgh Steelers player Elnardo Webster Jr., former Jersey City Mayor Gerald McCann, and Bob Hurley, the former coach of the St. Anthony’s Basketball team and a Basketball Hall of Famer. All speakers talked about the need for outdoor recreation, which the task force could fulfill.

“We’d like a portion of that property to simply be used for active recreation,” Webster said. “For athletics, for active recreation, for folks particularly from the community next door to it that have suffered so long.”

Proponents also said the park needs cleanup from contaminants. 

“There are other contaminants in the park, including asbestos,” McCann said. “We’d like to have that removed from the park.”

The League of Conservation Voters (LCV) testified against the bill, saying they were in favor of active recreation and improvements to the park, but were opposed to the bill due to a lack of guardrails against privatization.

“One of the key things I want to highlight is that there was an amendment preventing casinos,” said New Jersey LCV Policy Director Allison McLeod. “And the reason that that’s in there is because the way that the bill is currently written, it would’ve allowed that. So what else would it allow?”

Speakers in opposition specifically hailed Assemblyman Raj Mukherji (D-Jersey City)’s Liberty Park Protection Act, which more directly protects the park from development. Mukherji himself ultimately voted against releasing the task force bill from committee, while his 33rd district colleague Annette Chaparro (D-Hoboken) did vote to advance. 

“My concern today isn’t so much with what’s in the bill as what isn’t in the bill,” Mukherji said while urging a merger of the bill with the Liberty State Park Protection Act. “That bill which I’ve authored contains guardrails to ensure the people’s park remains exactly that.”

The bill was advanced out of the Assembly committee by a vote of 9-6, with all Republicans and Mukherji voting no. Proceedings in the Senate were more muted, with a few scattered opponents registering their frustrations with the bill, and passed 11-1 with only State Sen. Sam Thompson (R-Old Bridge) opposed. Both the Senate and Assembly list the bill on their voting agenda for tomorrow.

Fee and tax breaks

Aligned with, though not formally part of, the budget this year are a number of tax and fee holidays that Democratic legislators have hailed as a boon for the state’s highly taxed populace. 

One bill passed out of both chambers’ budget committees yesterday would create a back-to-school tax holiday; another waives fees for marriage and civil partnership licenses for the next year; and a third eliminates Motor Vehicle Commission fees for driver’s licenses and non-driver identification cards, also for the next year.

Democrats have hailed the measures as direct ways to aid New Jerseyans as inflation takes a toll on paychecks and affordability. When the sales tax holiday was announced earlier this month, Scutari said that “this is the [legislature’s] direct attack on inflation.”

Republicans, on the other hand, criticized the various measures as wholly insufficient to meet the needs of the moment, calculating that most people would only save a few dollars. But recognizing the small ways the measures could still help – and possibly aware of the political ramifications of opposing tax and fee cuts – they voted for them all the same.

“We’re gonna vote for this, but no one should hold any illusions that this is going to benefit anybody appreciably at all,” Senate Republican Budget Officer Declan O’Scanlon (R-Little Silver) said yesterday.

Everything else

Acting Secretary of State Tahesha Way, who had to be renominated at the beginning of this year after leading the State Department throughout Murphy’s first term as governor, cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously. Her nomination had been held up for months by State Sen. Kristin Corrado (R-Totowa), who said she decided to finally sign off on Way after meeting with her recently to discuss elections administration.

Also clearing the Judiciary Committee were seven Superior Court nominees; the committee is likely to meet at least once during the summer recess to continue working through the backlog of nominations, judicial and otherwise.

A bill to create a statewide police licensing system, which has support from a wide variety of groups on different sides, also passed both budget committees and is set for full votes in both chambers tomorrow.

And that’s not even touching on the dozens of other proposals approved yesterday that the New Jersey Globe hasn’t reported on previously: one bill establishing a Child Tax Credit Program, another hiking some auto insurance rates, a third increasing the hours that minors can legally work, and many more.

After months of modest action here and there, the rubber has truly hit the road for the New Jersey Legislature – and regardless of the individual merits of any given bill, there’s simply too much for members of the public and press to keep track of it all. 

Advocates, lobbyists, and even some legislators were left testifying yesterday on bills that had only just been released or which had amendments that had not been posted anywhere. When the budget itself came up for a vote, Republicans said that they’d only had copies for 20 to 30 minutes, and a few business group representatives who testified hadn’t seen the budget text at all.

On Thursday, the governor is near-certain to sign the budget, and legislators will take off for their months-long summer recess. With them out of Trenton, it will be left up to everyone else to figure out what, exactly, it is they just passed into law.

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