Assembly speaker remains quiet on major policy initiatives

Since assuming his role as speaker of the Assembly, Craig Coughlin promised to help usher in a new era of progressive reforms. But in the three weeks since Gov. Murphy unveiled his budget proposal, Coughlin’s positions on major policy initiatives remain mum.

“As I said before, we’re going to engage in a thorough and thoughtful process, we’ve begun that now. We’ve had our first Assembly Budget Committee hearings and we’re going to work through that and look at the budget in its totality, and get to work on that,” said Coughlin.

The speaker carefully dodged questions Thursday about his stance on a millionaire’s tax, corporate business tax or legalizing marijuana, all of which are key components to the governor’s budget. Instead, he held a news conference about combating childhood hunger, throwing his full support behind a legislative bill package he promised he’d champion.

“That’ll ensure that students are eating breakfast on a daily basis and that the meals continue through the summer. We all know what a challenge that is for so many families,” said Coughlin.

New Jersey ranks 19th in the country for its low-income student participation rate in school breakfast programs. The four bills touted Thursday will require more to take part and get federal dollars flowing into schools and communities.

“We have about 11 percent of our residents who are food insecure, but 15 percent of New Jersey children are food insecure, and the need is growing,” said Adele LaTourette, director of the New Jersey Anti-Hunger Coalition.

Meanwhile, a more contentious bill Coughlin is spearheading cleared all committee hurdles on Thursday: legislation to combat surprise, out-of-network emergency medical bills. It’s been in and out of legislative hearings for nearly a decade, but Coughlin resurrected it when he took the helm.

Sponsors say the intent is to increase medical billing transparency to help with rising health care costs. They say bills not covered by insurance amount to at least $1 billion a year in the state, but opponents aren’t happy with a provision that allows for a so-called baseball style arbitration process to resolve billing disputes. That means an independent arbitrator will choose between final offers from each party. And, it could mean drastically cutting emergency doctors’ reimbursement rates, even forcing them out of the state. Coughlin says the bill stands as is.

“We have worked really hard with the stakeholders. This has been a process that has gone on for an awfully long time. I had it when I was chair of the AFI [Assembly Financial Institutions and Insurance] Committee. I think we’re comfortable with where the bill is right now, and we’re going to get broad support for the bill. So, I think we’re going to get it done,” said Coughlin.

The full vote takes place next Thursday.

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