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Governor Phil Murphy. Photo by Kevin Sanders for New Jersey Globe

Murphy doesn’t have Senate votes to legalize weed

Assembly set to approve measure, but only if Senate can get to 21

By David Wildstein, March 25 2019 12:00 am

The New Jersey Legislature is scheduled to consider a proposal to legalize the recreational use of marijuana today, one of the cornerstones of Gov. Phil Murphy’s legislative agenda.

Right now, it looks like Murphy is stuck at sixteen votes – maybe eighteen, if more optimistic views are counted — in the State Senate, according to fourteen sources with direct knowledge of where various legislators stand for the vote.

This may be a critical moment in Murphy’s governorship as his path to 21 yes votes may be an uphill battle in the final hours before the Senate meets.  Still, Murphy seems reticent to overtly use the power of his governorship to sway key senators to his side.

The Assembly has enough votes to pass the measure – 41 are required – but Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin will not consider the measure unless he receives assurances from the Senate that they have 21 votes place.  Coughlin has taken his fiduciary responsibility to his caucus seriously and there is no chance that he will unnecessarily force Democratic legislators to cast votes seven months before the mid-term elections.

Murphy has been calling legislators — as well as those who influence certain legislators – but sources almost universally agree that he has not moved the needle much over the weekend.

Senate President Steve Sweeney, who just returned from a trip across the country, is now positioned to say that he gave Murphy a chance to get the measure passed but the governor was unable to get the votes.  Murphy will likely say that Sweeney didn’t do anything to help him.

Sweeney has said he will vote in favor of marijuana legalization.

There are complaints that Sweeney hasn’t pushed three South Jersey senators – Bob Andrzejczak (D-Middle), Fred Madden (D-Washington), and Jim Beach (D-Voorhees) — to vote yes.  A fourth senator, recent party-switcher Dawn Addiego (D-Evesham), abstained on weed in committee last year as a Republican and again this year as a Democrat.  Since then, she has reportedly decided to vote no.

But allies of Sweeney counter that the governor can’t get his closest Senate ally, former Gov. Richard Codey (D-Roseland), to move either.

Madden is a former state police superintendent who appears as opposed to the legalization of marijuana as the Senate’s leading voice in opposition to legal weed, Murphy ally Ronald Rice (D-Newark).

Andrzejczak is the only senator up for re-election this year.  He faces a competitive race against Cumberland County GOP chairman Michael Testa, Jr. in a district where Donald Trump won 55% of the vote and where Republicans have a slight voter registration edge.

The path to 21 yes votes in the Senate likely runs through Bergen County, but Murphy has not closed the deal on Paul Sarlo (D-Wood-Ridge) and Joseph Lagana (D-Paramus), most of the sources said.

Getting Sarlo on board was not helped when Murphy did not file the proper paperwork with the Senate last Thursday to move the nomination of the new Bergen County prosecutor, along with several judicial nominations.

While Codey and two other Democratic senators who are not on board, Shirley Turner (D-Lawrence) and Nia Gill (D-Montclair) represent districts that are more likely to support a progressive agenda, Sarlo and Lagana represent Democratic districts that are still a little to the right of center.

There is no evidence at this point that Codey, Turner or Gill could face a primary challenge over their opposition to legal weed.  Gill comes from Montclair, where the Democratic municipal chairman is a Murphy ally.

The governor is trying to pull some Republican votes.  Declan O’Scanlon (R-Little Silver) has left the door open to voting yes, provided that the governor dedicates some of the revenues from cannabis to help lower taxes.  So far, Murphy has not made such a commitment, some sources say.

Murphy is also working on Bob Singer (R-Lakewood), who has said he planned to vote no.  Singer’s ability to get an additional $15 million for Lakewood public schools out of Murphy without any commitment to help the governor could make the longtime legislator an early contender for Politician of the Year.

Christopher Bateman (R-Branchburg) announced on Friday that he was voting no.  Bateman won just 52% in his 2017 re-election bid in a district that is represented by two Democrats in the State Assembly.   There is little political risk for Bateman: if his district becomes more Democratic in the next round of redistricting, the conventional wisdom is that he will retire.  If the district loses the Democratic stronghold of Princeton and replaces it with more Republican towns, his vote against the legalization of marijuana probably won’t hurt him.

The March 25 vote – a somewhat arbitrary date – was set to separate the cannabis vote from the consideration of the state budget.

Legislators are due to go on a budget recess, which makes a postponement of today’s vote difficult.  Many legislators have scheduled vacations during this time and the math that could get Murphy to a win today in both houses may not work again until later in the year.

A huge number of legislators who spoke with the New Jersey Globe said that they have not felt any intense lobbying from constituents.  Almost all of them note that relatively few calls have come in to their district offices, with views nearly split – and that a majority of the calls that came in support of legalization were from outside their legislative districts.

This points to a top-down lobbying approach rather than grass-roots organizing.  Numerous legislators noted that the progressive groups that intensely lobbied then on raising the minimum wage were not engaged on the marijuana issue.

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