The full state legislature met once again in Trenton today, but even though the summer recess is only two weeks away, controversial bills on guns and abortion were entirely missing from the docket.
Instead, the Assembly focused on a series of election bills designed to improve efficiency and transparency; the Senate shot down an attempt by Republicans to force a vote on their “Give It Back” program; and a bill on Liberty State Park wound its way through an hours-long committee hearing. Here’s everything you need to know about what happened today at the statehouse
‘N.J. elections should maybe function better,’ Assembly says
Four election reform bills championed by Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-Woodbridge) passed the Assembly, three of them unanimously and the fourth on a 75-2 vote. If enacted, the bills would make major changes to the state’s election administration, such as requiring tallies of counted and uncounted ballots to be posted online, shortening the absentee ballot acceptance period, and preventing unaffiliated voters from voting absentee in primaries.
Introducing the bills on the Assembly floor, Coughlin praised the bipartisan nature of the package, saying how unusual it is in the current political climate to find cross-party agreement on voting reforms.
“With these reforms, here’s the message we are sending to New Jerseyans: Your elections are fair,” Coughlin said. “Your elections are open. And both parties are still able to work together to protect your rights to vote.”
But not every bill in the package got a vote. Two minor bills on fire district special elections and early voting sites appear to have been delinked from the overall package, while a more major bill – A3817, which would shorten the ballot cure deadline, require privacy sleeves for ballots, add an online option for absentee ballot requests and voter registration changes, and require early and mail-in votes be reported by election district – was initially listed on today’s schedule but was removed at the last minute.
According to Assemblyman Christopher DePhillips (R-Wyckoff), one of that bill’s sponsors, there were some last-minute amendments that forced the bill to be sent back to one last committee before it reached the floor.
“It’s going to probably go to a committee vote next week,” DePhillips said. “I suspect it’s going to be passed at the next voting session.”
‘We’ll see about that,’ Senate responds
Though most may have been successful in the Assembly, none of the election bills have even been introduced in the Senate, let alone come up for a vote. After today’s voting session, Senate President Nick Scutari (D-Linden) indicated that he was open to the bills, but didn’t make any firm promises.
“We’re having an ongoing dialogue regarding those bills,” he said. “We’re going to evaluate those bill by bill, and they may in fact get a hearing here.”
The Senate and Assembly have largely taken separate paths with regards to election law this year, and there has yet to be any coordinated effort across the chambers to pass unified reform legislation. In the previous Senate session, Democrats were handed an unexpected setback when they couldn’t get a bill authorizing early counting of absentee and early ballots to 21 votes thanks to several members being absent; it’s not clear where that bill stands now.
Gun control, abortion left off the docket
Two things that were entirely missing from today’s list of bills were Gov. Phil Murphy’s proposals on abortion and gun control, both of which have proven controversial and face a difficult road to passage.
So far, exactly one bill across the two topics has come up for a vote: a bill expanding the attorney general’s ability to take legal action against the firearm industry that cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee earlier this week. With only two weeks left before the summer recess, no other major abortion or gun bill has had a committee hearing.
Scutari conceded that the governor’s abortion bill is unlikely to pass, saying that there aren’t 21 votes to pass it. On the eight bills in the gun control package, however, he was more sanguine, saying that the legislature needs to “bring commonsense gun solutions to the people of New Jersey.”
Give It Back: not just something toddlers say when you take their toy
Senate Republicans attempted to advance a component of their “Give It Back” program, pushing on the Senate floor for a measure that would send $3 billion in tax rebates to 4 million households. The bill is a counter to Murphy’s proposed ANCHOR program, which was formally unveiled earlier this week.
During today’s Senate session, State Sen. Declan O’Scanlon (R-Little Silver) attempted to bring the Senate version of the bill for a vote, saying that passing it would help New Jersey’s struggling families.
“We know that many families live paycheck to paycheck and those paychecks aren’t going nearly as far as they did just a year ago,” O’Scanlon said. “At the same time our state treasury has collected nearly $9 billion more in taxes than we expected.”
Immediately following O’Scanlon’s remarks, Senate Majority Leader Teresa Ruiz (D-Newark) moved to table the motion, which passed 20-16.
There wasn’t quite the same coordinated effort to get Republican legislation to the Assembly floor, but several Republican assemblymembers did make motions to put their bills up for a vote that were promptly tabled by Democratic leadership.
Most notably, Assemblyman Brian Bergen (R-Denville) pushed for his bill to reduce disabled veterans’ property taxes, noting that it had a whopping 52 sponsors in the Assembly but had not come up for a vote in the Military and Veterans’ Affairs Committee.
“All I ever wanted was for this bill to be given a fair shake in committee,” Bergen said. “You’ve left me no choice, by ignoring me, except for me to make a motion to relieve it from the committee process so that this very, very important bill can be heard on the floor… This is where the rubber hits the road. Will you support vets or not?”
Bergen’s motion was tabled on a party-line vote, with many of the bill’s sponsors voting to reject their own legislation.
Judicial vacancy crisis solved forever thanks to two new judges
The Senate unanimously approved a slate of 22 nominations, including two nominees to the Superior Court, one nominee to the Tax Court, and 10 new terms for incumbent Superior Court judges. Also approved were nine other nominees to state councils, task forces, and trusts, among them Assemblyman John Armato (D-Buena Vista) to the Governor’s Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse.
The two new members of the Superior Court are James Fattorini and William G. Mennen IV, the latter of whom is a former Hunterdon County freeholder and heir to the New Jersey deodorant fortune. Fattorini was approved after his nomination was delayed in May for unknown reasons.
Liberté State Park, Égalité State Park, Fraternité State Park
In addition to the full voting sessions in both chambers, the Senate Environment and Energy Committee held a meeting devoted almost entirely to one bill: S2807, which may as well be called the Liberty State Park Task Force Creation Act. The bill, which also appropriates $250 million for revitalizing the park, passed unanimously.
A number of Jersey City politicians and community leaders testified in support of the bill, but several environmental groups warned that without clear language protecting the park from privatization, the bill might do more harm than good.
“Of course we’re in favor of recreation,” said Anjuli Ramos-Busot of Sierra Club New Jersey. “We’re in favor of creating a park that provides more and more opportunities for everybody to come to the park and enjoy the green space… What we don’t want to see is large-scale privatization or large-scale developments in the park.”
Only nays in the building
Whenever a new assemblymember’s first bill comes to the floor for a vote, it’s an Assembly tradition that everyone in the chamber votes no before switching their vote to yes. Four freshman legislators got that treatment today: Assemblymembers William Sampson (D-Bayonne), Sadaf Jaffer (D-Montgomery), Bethanne McCarthy-Patrick (R-Woolwich), and Shama Haider (D-Tenafly).
The thing is, though, the prank only fully works on uncontroversial bills, since a key part of the joke is that all the votes eventually switch back to yes. But when Haider’s and Sampson’s bills came up, a handful of Republican legislators cast their votes as no – and didn’t change them back.
This story was updated on June 20 at 11:14 a.m. with a correction: John Armato was in fact among the nominees advanced by the Senate.