Bills stifled under Christie find new life in the Legislature

You could pop your head into any number of legislative committee hearings at the State House Thursday and catch a similar vibe: Progressive agenda items are at the top of the list.

“We’ve been trying to move bills since I’ve been here six years and now we have a governor that’s on board and willing to do that,” said Assemblyman Tim Eustace.

One item that has bipartisan agreement is cleaning up NJ Transit. Thursday, the Assembly Transportation Committee swiftly approved a bill sponsored by Assemblyman John McKeon. It’ll bring long-needed oversight and accountability reform to the troubled agency, requiring regular audits and expanding the board of directors from four to eight, among other items.

“I think your concept is spot on, but I have concerns about increasing those patronage positions and essentially giving more seats for a governor to fill,” said Assemblyman Anthony Bucco.

“What this is doing is to try to prevent that in the future, to have a board that’s going to be expanded, experienced and a board that’s going to be responsive to make sure there’s public meetings,” said McKeon.

Over in the Assembly Education hearing, lawmakers advanced new rules requiring certain schools to maintain a supply of Narcan, the opioid antidote for overdoses. They also addressed chronic absenteeism. The committee is moving a bill aimed at combating the problem and requiring the new commissioner of education to keep data on it in school report cards.

“We know that absenteeism relates to how well a student does, but we also know, and I think it’s really important in this bill, to understand why those children are being absent, what is happening at home, what is happening with that child,” said Julie Borst, organizer of the New Jersey Community Schools Coalition.

The only bump in the road, so to speak, happened in the Assembly Environment Committee, where lawmakers sparred over a bill requiring New Jersey to join the U.S. Climate Alliance, a group formed to uphold the Paris Climate Accord from which the U.S. intends to withdraw.

“This is a feel good piece of legislation that doesn’t accomplish anything. We should be looking at legislation that does address what Mr. Tittel was talking about with respect to the amount of cars that are on the highways,” said Assemblyman Kevin Rooney.

“Our members from the Republican Party seem to be happy to enter now into bipartisan ways in which to improve the environment. I don’t know where we were for the last eight years, but I’m glad, that as of now, that’s the case and move forward,” said McKeon.

The bill passed along party lines.

“Other states have taken the same action and we want to join with them to do whatever we can to make sure we have that opportunity to take the steps that are necessary before it’s too late,” said Assemblyman Nancy Pinkin.

Meanwhile, the inaugural hearing for a brand new committee, Science, Innovation and Technology, took place.

“Having a committee that’s going to make sure that when we look at what it’s going to take to grow jobs, to do the STEM pipeline, so that we have the next generation of people. What’s it take to get a great research idea out of one of our great universities and put it into the private sector,” said Committee Chair Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker.

From here, the bills still need to go to the Senate for approval before a full vote. As one Democrat articulated, the items they’ve been fighting for years are finally arriving.

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