The List: What To Expect During Lame-Duck Legislative Session

John Mooney | November 8, 2019 | The List, Politics
With Election Day receding in the mirror, Assembly speaker assesses what might happen during the closing days of this term

With the votes not fully counted on Tuesday night, Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin was asked what to expect during the coming lame-duck session of the Legislature.

He didn’t hesitate to top the list with cannabis legalization and reforms to corporate tax incentives — two of the most hotly contested topics of the last year but ones largely put on hold pending the Assembly election Tuesday.

With that date now passed, the wait is over.

“This is a time when everyone pushes to get a lot of things done,” Coughlin told NJ Spotlight. “Take a look at what everyone has on their agenda … At some point, they will all come to my desk.”

It was at the very least a bit of understatement. Indeed, the next few weeks should prove to be a busy time for the Legislature, as a lame-duck session opens the way for yes-no votes on a host of controversial measures that may have been tough sells for legislators on the campaign trail but not so much anymore.

And with a truncated window to act, the time between Election Day and the day the next Legislature is sworn in January is when legislative leaders traditionally push their agendas fiercest — and often quickest.

Here are a few of the issues and bills likely to be taken up, with Coughlin and others offering their best guesses to how they may go.

Cannabis legalization

That is the first big question mark of the session, with the fate unclear as to whether the Legislature will act to legalize marijuana and all that comes with that, or leave it to the voters in a referendum, as other states have done. The last word was leaving it to voters, but Coughlin isn’t so sure anymore.

“We had the votes in the Assembly the last time,” Coughlin said. “And I’ll leave it to the Senate president [Steve Sweeney] to tell you whether he has those votes. I know he’s hinted at the notion to take that up again.”

Corporate tax incentives

Arguably, it’s been the most contentious topic of the year — and that’s just among the Democrats. A standoff between Gov. Phil Murphy and legislative leaders over reforms has left the state without incentives to lure businesses to set down roots in New Jersey. Will the political bosses in both the executive and legislative branches finally find consensus? Coughlin said he was hopeful.

“The Senate president has a plan, I have a plan, and so does the governor,” Coughlin said. “We have been working hard in trying to reconcile those, and I think we have made some real progress.”

High school testing

State Sen. Teresa Ruiz, chair of the Senate education committee, has pressed for a bill that would alter the state’s testing for high school graduation, a topic that has split educators and advocates.

At the Murphy administration’s urging, the State Board of Education last month weighed in and voted to scale back some high school testing while maintaining an 11th grade test for graduation, as required by current law.

Ruiz’s bill would amend the current law so that safeguards remain in place for graduates to meet — and be tested on — what she deems as more rigorous standards.

Electric vehicle expansion

Advocates have pushed for long-stalled legislation that would extend new consumer rebates for electric vehicles and expand the network of charging stations to fuel them.

But it has been held up over how to pay for them. Their next big hope is the lame-duck session, and the bill’s sponsor is optimistic. “We’re really on a path to make it happen,’’ said state Sen. Linda Greenstein (D-Mercer).

Flavored vaping ban

Sen. Joseph Vitale (D-Middlesex), chair of the Senate health committee, has written a bill that would ban the sale of flavored vaping products, matching restrictions imposed by several other states. His bill would also ban sale of menthol-flavored traditional cigarettes.

The bill has yet to have a hearing, but with the national health scare over the dangers of e-cigarettes and a new state task force report proposing a host of restrictions, there appears a new urgency to act. Sweeney has gone so far as to propose banning all vaping products.

Dark-money limits

It’s another long-contested issue, one that’s been fought in the courts as well. Legislative attempts to open up disclosure of anonymous, or so-called dark-money sources of contributions to campaigns and issue committees have been stalled by opposition from both conservative and liberal corners.

Gov. Phil Murphy signed a transparency bill last spring after the threat of a veto override but warned the Legislature’s bill went too far and needed to be amended lest it be deemed unconstitutional.

A so-called clean-up bill was introduced but never moved and a federal district court judge has put the law on hold, saying it indeed may be unconstitutional. Bill sponsors have said they are intent on making the necessary fixes so the law can take effect.

The rest

There are other measures that could arise before 2020 strikes as well, from controversial bans on single-use plastic bags to broader initiatives for school consolidation or other systemic reforms under Sweeney’s sweeping “Path to Progress” campaign.

The governor was asked last week about what he hopes to be accomplished as well, and he coyly kept his cards close.

“We have been in office 24-plus months, I’ve signed over 450 bills,” Murphy said. “It’s not like I’ve been waiting around for the lame duck to do something.

“So I would expect the lame-duck period to also be productive, as our administration has been up to now and will continue to be until well after the lame duck.”