The $46.4 billion budget was the main event at the New Jersey State House Thursday, but the Senate and Assembly also passed dozens of bills to reduce some income taxes, reform nursing and veteran homes in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, increase college aid and tackle a host of other issues.
Just hours after receiving one bill, which seeks to end the imposition of mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent crimes that include public corruption, Gov. Phil Murphy announced his intention to veto the effort for the second time in two months.
Between the agendas, lawmakers faced some 250 bills, far more than the limits on the number of bills allowed for any voting session. Both the Senate and Assembly waived those bill limits, making for a dizzying day, with both houses meeting at the same time.
Several bills were declared “emergency” measures and passed without having first been considered by a committee as is typically required. Other bills passed one house, then were amended in the other and passed so the measures were identical and could be sent to Murphy.
The rush before the summer break
The rush was an effort by lawmakers to accomplish most of their priorities before breaking for the summer or longer. Leaders typically schedule few voting sessions and hesitate to consider controversial matters in the months leading up to the general election like this year when all 120 seats are on the ballot. Both houses do have additional session dates scheduled for next week, but it appears only the Senate will return Wednesday to deal with some measures.
Among the bills approved are a number that would provide new tax relief and college student assistance, negotiated as part of the budget deal by the leaders of the Senate and Assembly and Murphy. These include:
The New Jersey College Affordability Act, A-12, which would provide more than $100 million in higher education savings and loan relief in the form of income-tax deductions for college savings and loans for households with up to $200,000 in income and grants to lower-income families who open an account in the state’s NJBEST college savings plan.
A-5539, which would allow taxpayers with incomes between $100,000 and $150,000 to exclude from taxation some of their pension and retirement income; currently pension and retirement income is taxed once income exceeds $100,000.
A-5345, which would change the age eligibility criteria for the Earned Income Tax Credit program to allow those as young as 18 and older than 65 to claim the credit provided they meet income eligibility criteria.
A-13, which would create a debt defeasance fund, with $2.5 billion set aside for retiring debt and $1.2 billion to fund capital construction projects on a pay-as-you-go basis to avoid having to issue new bonds.
A number of other significant measures gained final passage in one or both houses on Thursday.
Both houses passed two bills meant to help tenants and landlords impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. They approved a much-debated measure, S-3691, that would provide financial assistance to landlords and tenants and prevent the eviction of some low- and moderate-income residents for nonpayment of rent through the end of the year. A second bill, S-3955, would create a new program to help tenants or their landlords apply for rental assistance. No cost estimate is available for either bill.
The Assembly gave final approval to place a constitutional amendment, SCR-133, on the November ballot asking voters to support expanding sports betting in the state to all college events, including those happening in New Jersey and in which a state college team is participating. If passed, it is expected to bring an unknown amount of funds to the state coffers.
Lawmakers also wrapped up work on a bipartisan measure, A-3800/S-1431, that they have debated for several years that would create an optional donation box on state income tax forms to benefit pediatric cancer. Funds would be distributed through the existing State Commission on Cancer Research as grants to academic, medical and other research entities.
Controversy over public corruption
Legislators passed S-3658, identical to one that Murphy conditionally vetoed two months ago, that would end the imposition of mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent crimes. The disagreement between Murphy and Democrats in the Legislature is over the bill’s inclusion of public corruption cases among those no longer subject to mandatory sentencing. A few hours later, Murphy announced he would conditionally veto this bill, as well, for the same reasons.
Another controversial bill that received final passage was A-5864, which would allow law enforcement officers to review recordings made by their body cameras before they write their reports. The Assembly passed the measure, but the Senate amended it, declared an emergency to bypass rules and allow for an immediate vote and then passed it. That meant the Assembly had to pass it again, doing so hours after passing it the first time.
The Assembly approved S-2953, which would expand prisoner re-entry services currently provided to state inmates to individuals being released from county jails. Those leaving county facilities would have to be given documents and information about services available on release.
Both houses passed A-5207, would prevent state, county and local governments as well as private detention facilities from signing new contracts with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency to hold federal immigrant detainees. It also prohibits renewing or expanding existing contracts with ICE to hold detainees.
More pandemic aid
Lawmakers also passed bills providing funds to aid in recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. S-3982 would provide $135 million in federal funds to the New Jersey Economic Development Authority to support child care providers, restaurants, nonprofits and microbusinesses impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. A-5863 would spend $100 million to support the state’s child care industry, including a study of the current child care landscape and technical assistance and grants to care providers to cover salaries, equipment and capital improvements.
And they cleared three measures aimed to help reduce hunger in the state. One, S-3945, would create the Office of the Food Insecurity Advocate to coordinate the administration of food insecurity programs and develop new policies to combat hunger. Two others, A-5882 and A-5883, would provide supplemental state funding to school districts or other groups providing summer meals or breakfast after the bell.
The Assembly also cleared a number of bills related to the COVID-19 pandemic that now go to the Senate.
One, S-4200, would revise insurance law to require private plans, policies for public workers and the Medicaid program to cover telehealth visits, which became a favored option for many during the pandemic, for both behavioral and physical care. It also makes insurance companies pay medical providers the same rate for telehealth that they would for in-person appointments and provides $5 million to help the state pay for these services within Medicaid and public-worker plans.
The COVID-19 outbreak also prompted Assembly action on a measure to update a 2019 law that required some long-term care facilities to file detailed infection-control plans with the state. S-2798 would require these plans from a wide range of facilities, including nursing homes and assisted living, not all of which were included in the 2019 reform, which was adopted in the wake of a deadly outbreak at a rehabilitation hospital in Wanaque that housed medically fragile children.
Assembly members also passed a trio of measures designed to improve communication at the three state-run veterans homes, where many residents died of the coronavirus, through regular meetings with stakeholders. These facilities were also roundly criticized for not informing family members about the condition of their loved ones during the pandemic.
The Senate passed five bills that would update domestic violence laws to implement recommendations from a Supreme Court committee, including required training for law enforcement and prosecutors and stronger statewide supervision over law enforcement domestic crisis teams. They now head to the Assembly.