As Lame Duck Winds Down, a Hodgepodge of Bill Approvals

Michael Aron, NJTV News | January 7, 2020 | Politics
As clock ticks off last days of legislative session, bills range from screening schoolkids for depression to giving disabled vets a break on dune-buggy permits

With time rapidly running out on the lame-duck session of the state Legislature, a hodgepodge of bills that came before the key Assembly Appropriations Committee on Monday was destined for bigger things.

“The majority of the agenda is an agenda that’s going to move the full distance at this point,” said Assemblyman John Burzichelli, the Democrat who chairs the committee, with a critical role in the lawmaking process. “We’re in lame duck. And we’ll have another appropriations meeting Thursday. There’ll be a voting session. So anything you see on this agenda has a likely chance to go the distance.”

The measures received the panel’s endorsement and now head for a vote by the full Assembly. There was nothing of a particularly high profile.

Screening schoolkids for depression

A-3926, already approved by the state Senate, would require that schoolchildren be screened annually for depression, unless the child’s parents object.

“I know there is some disagreement about this, but if we don’t get started, if we don’t give people a choice to find out if there is a problem, we are going to see tragedies that might be prevented,” said Assemblyman Herb Conaway, the Burlington County Democrat who sponsored the measure.

The committee vote was 11-0.

The panel split 8-3 in its approval of another bill, requiring rail companies that transport oil through towns to give notice of what they’re carrying and to file a plan for handling an emergency. A-3783 has been approved by the Senate.

“This oil-train safety bill is one of the few ways our elected officials can protect people in New Jersey from the dangers of hazardous material transported by rail,” said Paula Rogovin of the Coalition to Ban Unsafe Oil Trains.

Not all agreed.

“This bill, its intentions are honorable, its results are disastrous,” said Ronal Sabol, state legislative director of SMART Transportation.

Making infrastructure more vulnerable?

“Disclosing this information and making it very public actually makes our infrastructure more vulnerable not more safe,” said Assemblyman Jay Webber, a Republican whose district encompasses parts of Essex, Morris and Passaic counties.

A similar bill was vetoed by Gov. Chris Christie in 2017, who cited concerns about security.

“We all know the world has changed since 2017. It’s changed in the last 72 hours,” said Assemblyman Kevin Rooney, also a Republican whose district includes northern Bergen County.

Among the other bills approved by the committee:

A-4086, which has been approved by the full Senate, would require that corrections officers receive training in the prevention of sexual misconduct, nonfraternization and undue familiarity in their dealings with inmates. It was approved unanimously by the committee.

A-3391, which provides crime victims with free legal aid. Passed 11-0 by the committee, it has already been approved in the Senate.

A-715, which waives fees for disabled veterans who get beach-buggy permits. It was also approved unanimously and has been approved by the full Senate.

“I have seen first-hand the enjoyment veterans take in riding beach buggies as an outdoor recreational activity,” said Assembly Dianne Gove, a Republican whose district includes Jersey Shore communities.

A-422 would allow online voter registration, as in 39 other states. The committee voted 8-0, with three abstentions; the measure has been approved by the Senate.

“Voters who register for online platforms are substantially more likely to complete their registrations,” said Sarah Jackel, general counsel of Vote.org. “People who do so through paper forms that have to be printed and mailed in often don’t get around to printing and mailing them in.”

There are eight days left to pass legislation in this session of the Legislature. Come noon next Tuesday, the slate gets wiped clean, and anyone who wants a bill passed has to start the process anew.