Governor Signs Dozens of New Laws, Legislators Try to Cram in Dozens More at 11th Hour

Colleen O'Dea, Senior writer | January 14, 2020 | Politics
Some measures have been pending since January 2018; others were introduced last week just days before legislative session was about to end

The final day of the 2018-2019 New Jersey legislative session saw a flurry of action, with Gov. Phil Murphy signing 55 new laws that will impact schools, tenants, health insurance and other issues and lawmakers sending him more than another 100 to consider enacting.

Like students waiting until the night before a final to cram, lawmakers on Monday worked feverishly through bill lists that exceeded 200 in each house of the Legislature to get them to Murphy for his possible signature, before noon today. That’s when the 2020-2021 legislative session begins.

Some measures have been pending the entire session, which began in January 2018, while others were only introduced last week. Bills that lawmakers sent to Murphy ranged from ones narrowly focused, such as S-491 that would enhance the accidental death pension for the surviving spouse of a police officer or firefighter to at least $50,000 a year, to those that would impact the entire state — A-3890 would assess two motor vehicle license points against those who had been cited multiple times for failing to slow down or move over for stopped emergency or other vehicles.

As well as signing 55 measures into law, the governor turned down two others.

Murphy’s absolute veto of one bill (S-4139) does not bode well for some other measures lawmakers sent him yesterday that seek appropriations for individual projects. In his veto message, Murphy wrote “the more appropriate approach” to giving $250,000 to Rutgers University’s School of Dental Medicine Special Treatment Center would be through the regular budget process, when it could be considered alongside “competing programs, services, interests, and obligations of the State that our taxpayers ultimately fund.”

A political football

The measure had become something of a political football, when two Republican legislators who said they supported the center voted against it when it came before the Assembly Higher Education Committee in December, alluding to the eight-year, $32 million salary recently given to Greg Schiano to rejoin Rutgers as its head football coach. The center serves more than 4,000 people with special needs each year and the average wait time for a non-emergency appointment is 18 months.

The governor also vetoed a bill by Senate President Steve Sweeney that would have allowed districts hit hardest by funding cuts to waive the state’s current 2% cap on property taxes.

Murphy also conditionally vetoed three measures and the sponsors of those — bills dealing with prescription drug insurance coverage, student privacy and energy taxes — quickly added them to the already long Senate and Assembly board lists, moving to concur with the changes sought by the governor in order to get the measures enacted. For instance, just a few hours after Murphy’s CV of A-2431, which seeks to control copayments for prescription drugs, the Assembly voted 75-0 to concur with the governor’s suggested changes.

Among the major bills the governor signed into the law was a raft of those related to health care.

Murphy approved a four-bill package designed to improve health outcomes for New Jersey’s mothers and babies and address the racial inequities in maternal and infant health care. The measures support the administration’s Nurture NJ campaign, led by First Lady Tammy Murphy.

“It is absolutely essential that mothers across all races, ethnicities, social and economic backgrounds are listened to and supported by federal, state and community resources,” Tammy Murphy said in a statement marking the bills’ enactment. “Today’s legislation provides better care and support for our mothers and babies, and moves us closer to improving health outcomes for all of New Jersey’s families.”

The bills in the package are: A-5509, which requires health benefits and Medicaid coverage for breastfeeding support; S-3159, which mandates Medicaid coverage for pasteurized donated human breast milk under certain circumstances; S-484, which revises the newborn screening program in the state Department of Health; and S-2133, which mandates health benefits coverage for fertility preservation services under certain health insurance plans.

More on health care

Among other health-related bills Murphy signed into law were:

Taxing issues

The governor also signed a few tax-related bills.

One has given small businesses and other pass-through entities in New Jersey a way to get around a tight limit on the federal tax deduction for state and local taxes known as SALT.

Under S-3246, the taxes paid by pass-through entities, including partnerships, limited-liability corporations and so-called S corporations, will be reclassified as business taxes, which will allow them to be fully deducted from federal taxes, since federal tax law still allows a full SALT write-off for all business taxes. The tax overhaul enacted by President Donald Trump in 2017 capped SALT for individuals at $10,000.

The reclassification helps an estimated 115,000 small businesses that register as S corporations, and another estimated 175,000 limited liability corporations. It would effectively recreate the way the state handled the taxing of such entities in the early 1990s, before policymakers decided to switch to the current format. Nonpartisan analysts from the Office of Legislative Services predicted the change in tax policy would be revenue-neutral for the state.

Municipalities that want to levy a special property tax to raise money for arts and cultural programs now have the power to do so, with Murphy’s signing of A-3832. Under the new law, municipal officials can establish the new tax if a majority of voters in their communities approve. Revenue raised in communities that decide to collect the new tax would have to be deposited into a designated “arts and culture trust fund.” The revenue could be used for a different purpose if a municipality goes into “fiscal distress” based on the determination of the director of the state Department of Community Affairs’ Division of Local Government Services.

Regulating asset forfeiture

Murphy also signed legislation (S-1963) that puts in place comprehensive disclosure and transparency requirements for the civil asset forfeiture system. County prosecutors will have to submit quarterly reports to the state attorney general detailing seizure and forfeiture activities by law enforcement agencies within their county. These must identify the law enforcement agency involved in a confiscation; the date, description, and details of a seizure; the amount of funds or estimated value of a property; the alleged criminal offense associated with a seizure; and whether the defendant was charged with an offense and if those charges were ultimately dismissed or the defendant was acquitted.

“New Jersey law enforcement agencies currently have no permanent statutory requirement to disclose civil asset forfeitures,” Murphy said in a statement after signing the bill, which he touted as “a huge step forward for transparency and accountability.” Murphy said the new law will “boost confidence in our justice system by requiring county prosecutors to track and report data on this practice.”

The attorney general will use the data to create an online searchable database of civil asset forfeitures across New Jersey. Law enforcement agencies that fail to comply with the mandate will be required to return seized property or proceeds resulting from forfeited property.

New time frame for climate change

Among pro-environmental laws the governor enacted, he signed S-3215, which aims to tighten the time frame in assessing the impact of climate change in New Jersey. In the past, the state had used 50 years as the target in assessing global warming. The bill requires the state to use a 20-year impact assessment, given that many scientists state that climate change is already impacting coastal areas.

He also signed A-1212, which requires the state’s full participation in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative.

Laws on higher education, sexual assault

Murphy also enacted a number of bills related to higher education, including measures requiring college students to receive meningitis immunizations, colleges to post their budget on their websites, the setting up of commissions to study the state’s Tuition Aid Grant program, and addressing campus sexual assaults.

And he signed five bills that are part of a package prompted by the alleged sexual assault of a volunteer for Murphy’s gubernatorial campaign by another campaign worker and the fallout from that. These bills require a state employee to serve as Equal Employment Opportunity and Affirmative Action officer for gubernatorial transitions, mandate payment for expenses related to background investigations for transition positions, require the Civil Service Commission to establish standardized record keeping and retention requirements for some state employees, set certain rules for state agency reviews of workplace discrimination complaints and require that certain public employees get additional training to manage harassment and discrimination complaints.

Helping tenant and the ‘unbanked’

Murphy also signed a couple of bills designed to help lower-income individuals.

S-3206 creates a commission to study the problem of “unbanked” and “underbanked” New Jerseyans; it will examine the availability of banking locations in underserved areas and recommend how to improve access to financial services and get financial institutions to offer basic checking accounts and other low-interest, no-minimum products.

And S-3124 gives tenants a little more time to pay back-owed rent before they could be locked out of an apartment. It requires courts to give tenants a grace period of three business days to pay their rent after a warrant for removal is posted or a lockout is executed due to nonpayment. It also requires landlords to accept rent payments within this three-day period that are in cash, certified check, or money order or that are made by third parties such as a rental assistance program or charitable organization on behalf of the tenant and to cooperate with a third party that is paying rent on behalf of a tenant.

— John Reitmeyer, Lilo H. Stainton, Tom Johnson and Sheila Noonan contributed to this story.