Explainer: Making Sense of the Last-Minute Madness That Can Be the Lame Duck

Bills that are pending and in the works are just one part of the puzzle. Here’s a day-by-day guide to the Legislature’s and the governor’s final days

Like students cramming for finals, New Jersey lawmakers adopt a frenzied pace toward the end of each two-year session as they make last-ditch attempts at getting bills enacted into laws.

Because the current lame duck session of the Legislature coincides with the seating of a new governor for the first time in eight years, this year’s pre-holiday action is probably the busiest the state has seen in that period. Fifteen legislative seats are turning over due to the election and two-term Gov. Chris Christie has less than a month left in office, so there are many in the State House looking at their last chance to accomplish a goal. And legislative leaders who will be returning have their own agendas they would like to complete during this time.

While the Democrats control both houses and the incoming governor is a Democrat and the current governor is a Republican, that is not hampering some behind-the-scenes vote trading and deal making for lame-duck priorities. The agendas behind these deals are still not fully public, and may not be known even to some members.

For example, some obscure committees and commissions have been speeding authorizations for Christie plans to issue more than $380 million in new state debt — without voter approval — for several new government buildings. These include two in Trenton that dozens of residents and business owners are opposing because they would be located outside the city’s downtown retail corridor, along with new juvenile justice facilities in municipalities that know little about the plans. To ensure endorsement of the construction, at least one lawmaker temporarily replaced another on the State House Commission so he could vote yes and ensure the plan would proceed.

Some other examples of bills moving quickly through committees over the past two weeks include:

  • Bill S-3620, introduced nine days ago, applies to about five (either no one knows or they aren’t telling) elected officials meeting some highly specific criteria — in office July 1, 2007, elected to another public office after that, at least 15 years of continuous elective office. The goal is to allow them back into the fiscally challenged public-pension system. What is known is that the bill does apply to Camden Mayor Dana Redd, at least.
  • Another bill, S-3565, introduced December 4, would have the state pay for benefits for additional staff “at four-year public institution of higher education that establishes postsecondary academic and residential facilities in a coastal city with gaming in a resort area.” In other words, Stockton University.
  • Two other bills, S-2872 and S-3169, would provide tax and other incentives to an area that includes Atlantic City International Airport and its environs.
  • Legislative tally

    Since Democrat Phil Murphy was elected the next governor on November 7, the Legislature has been in session seven days for committees or full voting or both. It has taken action on 890 bills that are still pending in one house or the other or are on the governor’s desk, according to an analysis of the state Office of Legislative Services’ database of legislation. Nearly half of these bills were only introduced once the lame-duck session had begun.

    Normally, the governor has 45 days from the time a bill reaches his desk to sign or veto it or it automatically becomes law. This is the timetable for all bills that passed both houses through November 25. But the end of a session is a trickier time, with a compressed timetable necessitated by the impending close of the session. There are different sets of rules, depending on when a bill reaches the governor, specified in the state Constitution that OLS translates into real dates.

    Here’s how to keep track of the path of legislation that will reach or already has moved to the governor’s desk during this session:

  • At the moment, 46 bills or resolutions already have passed both houses and are awaiting action by Christie. All were last approved by one house or the other on December 7 or December 18. For all of these measures, and any others that might make it to his desk by December 29, Christie can choose to sign or veto them up until noon on January 8. Those that he doesn’t act on will become law. These 46 are likely the last bills subject to these rules because neither the Senate, nor the Assembly, has scheduled another full voting session before the end of this calendar year.
  • Bills passed between December 30 and January 8, 2018 will be trickier, because Christie could have the final say. Both legislative houses have scheduled two more voting sessions for this period, one on January 4 and another on January 8. The Legislature will reorganize and begin its new two-year term on January 9 at noon. Murphy will not be sworn into office until the following Tuesday, January 16, also at noon.
  • But Christie has until January 16 to veto or sign bills. Christie can take any action he’d like on bills approved by this time until he walks out the door around noon on January 16.

    Any bill that Christie does not sign or expressly veto will not become law, a term called a “pocket veto.”

  • If that’s not last-minute enough, there is a provision for legislation passing both houses on January 9 if approved before noon, when the current session expires. Should any bills be passed that morning — neither house has currently scheduled a morning voting session but that doesn’t mean they won’t — Christie could send measures back to lawmakers immediately for reconsideration, or he could choose to sign any of those bills up until his term ends on January 16. Any bills on which he takes no action would, again, be considered pocket vetoed.
  • Once the new Legislature is seated at noon on January 9 and begins its work, Christie has no say over any actions it may take, even if they occur while he is still in office. All work by the new Legislature will be subject to approval by the new governor, Murphy, after he takes office January 16.
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