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State Sen. Ronald L. Rice (D-Newark). (Photo: Kevin Sanders for the New Jersey Globe)

Rice: Scutari owes apology to state’s residents

Intra-party fight unlikely to die just yet

By Nikita Biryukov, December 21 2020 11:03 am

State Sen. Ron Rice (D-Newark) did not return a conciliatory response to Senate Judiciary Chairman Nicholas Scutari’s (D-Linden) apology after a Senate debate on marijuana legalization turned to personal attacks last week.

“Senator Scutari need not apologize to me.  Instead, I suggest he apologize to the thousands of people, Black, Latino, white and others, whose lives have been harmed over the past ten years through his abuse of power as Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee,” Rice said. “By holding bills crafted to establish criminal justice reform with the sealing of unfair drug arrest records and decriminalization of recreational marijuana, lives have been ruined and families torn apart.”

Though he backs removing criminal penalties for marijuana use, Rice, who chairs the Legislative Black Caucus, has long opposed legalizing recreational marijuana use.

That opposition matters far less now that voters have overwhelmingly approved a legalization referendum, but it was enough to draw Scutari’s ire during a virtual Senate session on Thursday.

Rice said the enabling legislation for the state’s legal marijuana market still didn’t do enough to help communities impacted by the war on drugs, charging social justice was not among Scutari’s priorities.

The bill dedicates 70% of marijuana sales tax revenue and the entirety of an excise tax on marijuana growers to such communities.

In response, Scutari claimed Rice had done little for his constituents over his 34 years in the State Senate. He walked back those comments on Saturday with an apology to Rice.

“Honesty, transparency and openness, however upsetting or uncomfortable, are the cornerstones of good lawmaking on behalf of the people we represent,” Rice said. “In my constant fight for justice and equal opportunity, and my pursuit of ending closed-door politics and informing the public without constraints, I will always speak up and speak out — in the Senate Caucus, on the floor of the Senate Chambers and in the media.”

The tiff isn’t the first between the Rice and his chamber’s Democratic leadership.

The Newark resident previously charged Gov. Phil Murphy and legislative leaders were patronizing of the state’s black lawmakers. In September, he called for Scutari to lost his Judiciary Committee chairmanship over the languid pace of a decriminalization bill meant to stop marijuana arrests until a framework for recreational use could be established.

On Monday, Rice said he was glad to finally be offered a meeting with Scutari and Sweeney, saying he’d requested as much for months before.

It’s also unlikely to be the last point of friction between Rice and Senate leaders.

“Until social and economic justice are established in our state, the overt fight will continue,” he said. “The voices of the disadvantaged and disenfranchised will not be silenced by legislature leadership. The sooner Senator Scutari and Senate President Sweeney accept that reality, the less need there will be for apologies.”

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