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The New Jersey Statehouse in Trenton. (Photo: Kevin Sanders for the New Jersey Globe).

Seven things to watch for on one of Trenton’s busiest days

Budget, abortion bills, and Senate nominations are just part of today’s packed schedule

By Joey Fox, June 27 2022 10:59 am

Just 37 legislators, representing less than a third of the total New Jersey Legislature, are scheduled to come to Trenton today – but it still might be the most important legislative day of the year.

That’s because three of the legislature’s most influential committees – the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee, the Senate Judiciary Committee, and the Assembly Budget Committee – are meeting, likely for the last time before the summer recess. Not only will they vote on the budget, which still has not been released, they’ll also be hearing dozens of other critical bills affecting broad swaths of the state.

The Senate and Assembly won’t hold full voting sessions, when bills actually get passed and sent to the governor’s desk, until Wednesday. But those bills can’t reach the floor at all if they aren’t hashed out today, in front of a packed committee room and among legislators who might not have seen their full text until minutes before.

Here’s what’s going down in the statehouse today.

The budget

Naturally, the single most important thing that will come up for a vote today is the state budget, which allocates how tens of billions of dollars of state money will be spent in Fiscal Year 2023. The budget process formally began back in early March, after Gov. Phil Murphy delivered his annual budget address to a joint session of the legislature, and the final bill needs to be passed by this Thursday at midnight to avoid a government shutdown.

Unfortunately, no one outside of a select cohort of Democratic legislators and staffers actually knows what the budget looks like. 

The bill still hasn’t been introduced or posted to committee, despite theoretically coming up for a vote in both the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee and the Assembly Budget Committee in just a few hours. Right now, the Senate committee agenda helpfully says that the budget “appropriates $X in State funds and $X in federal funds for the State budget.”

As Senate Republican Budget Officer Declan O’Scanlon (R-Little Silver) noted on Twitter, that means virtually no one – including press, Republican legislators, and members of the public – will realistically be able to read the hundreds-of-pages-long budget before it goes through committee. 

“No one voting on the $50 billion expenditure of your $ will have had the time to effectively read and analyze the document,” he wrote. “Totally irresponsible.”

New Jersey has always had transparency issues on its budget process, but this year is especially bad. Last year, the budget was introduced and made publicly accessible on June 21; in 2019, it was introduced on June 17. (The 2020 budget process featured a three-month delay due to Covid, so the same timeline didn’t apply.)

What that means is that the next four days of legislative activity will be even more fevered than usual – with few outside of Trenton’s inner circles able to meaningfully participate.

Abortion bills

In an unexpected turn of events, all three committees holding meetings today will hear three bills related to abortion access. (The Assembly Budget Committee didn’t even have them scheduled until around midday today, an indication of just how last-minute some negotiations are.)

One bill, S2642/A3974, prohibits the extradition of individuals to other states for crimes related to reproductive health services that are legal in New Jersey; two others, S2633 and A3975, clarify other state’s residents’ access to abortion services in New Jersey and protect New Jersey abortion providers from other states’ laws, respectively.

Essentially, what the two bills attempt to do in tandem is establish New Jersey as a safe haven for abortions, both for New Jersey residents and residents of other states, as dozens of states around the country work to create their own laws banning or severely limiting abortion.

That’s not all of what Murphy has said he wants enacted in the wake of Roe v. Wade’s fall, but it’s a significant start. Just a week and a half ago, Senate President Nick Scutari (D-Linden) downplayed the possibility of abortion legislation passing the legislature before the summer recess.

While having committee hearings is a critical first step, however, the bills still might run aground with so little time left. As shown by last session’s vote on the Freedom of Reproductive Act, enough Democratic legislators are squeamish on abortion issues to potentially sink any bill expanding or codifying abortion access.

Senate nominations

With a number of key judicial and cabinet posts still without a Senate-confirmed officeholder, the Senate Judiciary Committee is taking up one last slate of Murphy nominees before the summer recess begins. (Committee Chair Brian Stack (D-Union City) has said he’ll hold at least one committee meeting over the summer, so there will be more opportunities for nominees to go through in the near future.)

The most important nominee coming before the committee today is acting Secretary of State Tahesha Way, who was Murphy’s secretary of state throughout his first term but needs to be reconfirmed now that the governor’s second term has begun. State Sen. Kristin Corrado (R-Totowa) has evidently relented – or traded in exchange for some other concession – on Way’s nomination after using senatorial courtesy to delay her confirmation for months.

Also coming before the committee are seven Superior Court nominees, including two, Jennifer Critchley and Amy DePaul, who were first nominated in January and have finally cleared the hurdle of State Sen. Joe Pennacchio (R-Montville)’s senatorial courtesy. Finally, there’s Elizabeth Graner, a 2021 Democratic nominee for the State Assembly whose next step on the political ladder will apparently be on the Somerset County Board of Taxation.

Missing from the list, of course, are nominees to fill the two, soon to be three, open seats on the New Jersey Supreme Court. That’s not a surprise – there had been no expectation that any nomination would advance this week – but it essentially guarantees that when Justice Barry Albin hits the mandatory retirement age on July 7, the court will have three open seats for the first time since the modern judicial system debuted in 1947.

The election reform package

Coming before the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee are four election reform bills, in what likely amounts to the last opportunity for public testimony on an important set of changes to the state’s election law. Three of the bills are part of a package spearheaded by Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-Woodbridge); three other bills from that same package previously advanced through a different Senate committee last week.

Most of the bills in Coughlin’s package – which make a wide variety of changes to the state’s reporting of votes, online voter services, partisan primaries, and more – have already passed the full Assembly (though some amendments have been made since then at the behest of voting rights groups).

The fourth, the so-called Elections Transparency Act, is newer. It would double the state’s campaign contribution limits while also requiring outside groups to disclose any contributions or expenditures of more than $1,000, among other provisions.

Liberty State Park and police licensing reform

Two other much-discussed bills may get their final committee hearings today: the bill establishing the Liberty State Park Design Task Force and the bill creating a police licensing system in New Jersey.

The former, which appropriates $250 million for the refurbishment of Liberty State Park, has drawn significant blowback from environmental groups, who say there aren’t enough safeguards to protect the park from privatization and overdevelopment. Paul Fireman, the billionaire who has long wanted to expand his golf course into a part of the park, has loomed over the debate on the bill and will likely come up again in today’s Senate and Assembly committee hearings.

The police licensing bill, on the other hand, hasn’t proven controversial; its plan to require all law enforcement officers in the state to hold a state-issued license has drawn support from the Policemen’s Benevolent Association and the NAACP. It’s already gone through three committees across the two chambers, and today’s Senate Budget and Appropriations hearing will be its fourth.

The Child Tax Credit and other under-the-radar bills

In addition to the budget, a number of other major bills related to rebates and state spending will be heard today, most of which will likely fly under the radar given how many other major pieces of legislation are coming up for a vote.

One bill, for example, would create the New Jersey Child Tax Credit Program, giving lower-income families direct monetary assistance for every child younger than six. Two others waive some or all fees for marriage and civil union licenses, driver’s licenses, and non-driver identification cards for the next year. And the proposal for a sales tax holiday on back-to-school supplies, first unveiled just last week, will be heard today.

The storm at the statehouse

Right as legislators begin hearing bills, Trenton may be hit by a hefty storm, giving an intense day an extra note of foreboding. As legislators prepare to vote on the budget (that may or may not have been released yet) and a huge number of other important bills, the skies above the statehouse will likely be crackling with lightning and booming with thunder.

Do with that information what you will.

This story was updated at 1:34 p.m. with new information about the abortion legislation, after the Assembly Budget Committee added two bills to its schedule.

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