TRENTON — Like students on the last day of school, New Jersey legislators bolted from the Statehouse on Thursday night for a long summer recess.
Yes, there’s always the possibility that lawmakers could be called back for some summer business, but with all 120 legislative seats and the Governor’s Office up for grabs in November, it’s a safe bet that most will keep busy this summer campaigning and fundraising for the general election.
In other words, if a bill didn’t land on Gov. Chris Christie’s desk Thursday night, it’s unlikely to end up there until the Legislature reconvenes this fall.
With that in mind, here is a look back at some of the bills that passed during the last several months as well as a few that didn’t reach the finish line on time and are likely on hold until the lame-duck session this fall:
Chief among the bills approved by the Legislature so far are more than a dozen gun measures intended to improve gun safety and close loopholes in New Jersey’s existing laws in the wake of the tragic school shootings in Newtown, Conn.
Among the measures approved and sent to Christie is a bill to overhaul the state’s gun permitting system to allow instant background checks of would-be gun buyers and instant revocations of permits of people convicted or sentenced to involuntary commitment. The bill also requires safety training for anyone interested in obtaining a permit.
The bill received final legislative approval from the Senate on Thursday, along with an anti-gun trafficking measure sponsored by Assemblyman Troy Singleton, D-7th of Palmyra, and Sen. Diane Allen, R-7th of Edgewater Park, that would increase penalties for people convicted of gun trafficking and permit authorities to seize and apply for forfeiture of motor vehicles used to transport illegal guns. Allen and Singleton’s bill also increases penalties for gun dealers who knowingly sell firearms to “straw purchasers,” people who intend to transfer the weapons to a person banned from owning a gun.
Other gun bills on Christie’s desk include one banning sales of .50-caliber rifles, upgraded penalties for possession of a weapon by people barred from owning firearms, and a ban on people on the federal terrorist watch list from obtaining a firearm.
Christie has said he is open to some stricter gun laws, but he has yet to sign any of the bills sent to him since the Newtown shootings.
On Friday he vetoed one of the bills which sought to ban the state from investing pension money with businesses or companies that make or sell assault rifles.
In addition to the gun bills, lawmakers approved a flurry of measures intended to help New Jersey’s many veterans and veterans organizations as well as active-duty soldiers and reservists and military spouses.
Most of the measures are designed to cut government red tape for military members and veterans to help them find work or obtain government services faster. For example, Christie has signed into law bills sent to him by the Legislature to create temporary teaching certificates and nursing licenses for the spouses of active-duty members who are transferred to New Jersey and hold valid out-of-state licenses. He also signed into law measures waiving the commercial driver’s license skills test for veterans with experience operating commercial vehicles in the military, and creating a “Helmets to Hardhats” program at the New Jersey Turnpike Authority to help out-of-work veterans find jobs in the construction industry.
In addition, the Legislature recently approved a resolution to put a question on the November ballot asking voters to allow nonprofit veterans organizations like the Veterans of Foreign Wars and American Legion to use proceeds from post lotteries, raffles, bingo nights and other games of chance to pay for organizational expenses.
In February, the Assembly gave final approval to a resolution to put a question on the November ballot asking voters to endorse increasing the state’s minimum wage from $7.25 to $8.25 next year and make future increases automatic based on the federal consumer price index.
Christie previously vetoed bills to implement the increase without the ballot question. He instead offered to phase in the raise and not make future hikes automatic. His offer was rejected by the Legislature’s Democratic majority, which preferred taking the issue to voters. The question automatically goes on the ballot because both the Senate and Assembly passed the same resolution for two consecutive years.
Fake farmers bill
Lawmakers have debated changes to the state’s lucrative farmland assessment program for years before Christie finally signed a bill in April to make the first significant changes to the program since its inception in 1964. Chief among the changes is an increase in the farm sales threshold needed to qualify for the 98 percent tax break on property used for farming, from a minimum $500 to $1,000. The law also requires that minimum to be reviewed every three years and that assessors in many communities receive periodic training.
Sales tax dedication
One closely watched measure that didn’t clear the Legislature before the break was a November ballot resolution asking voters to approve dedicating one-fifth of one cent of the state sales tax to open space and farmland preservation programs.
The dedication is expected to generate about $200 million a year beginning in fiscal year 2015, but the bill failed to cap the dedication at that amount. Without the cap, the measure was held up by the Assembly, disappointing farming advocates and numerous environmental and conservation groups that pushed for its approval to ensure that land preservation efforts continue uninterrupted.
The state borrowed $400 million for preservation programs in 2009, but all that money has been appropriated.
A bill to do away with Rutgers University’s 59-member board of trustees and shift its duties to the smaller board of governors was introduced last week and fast-tracked for final approval from both chambers on Thursday. It wound up being tabled in both chambers amid outcries from the university and questions about whether the Legislature has the authority to dissolve one of the university’s governing bodies.
Supporters said that doing away with the larger board would streamline the university’s governance, and that the timing was perfect given that a massive higher-education restructuring plan goes into effect Monday. Opponents said doing away with the trustees would increase political influence over the school.
Although the measure was tabled, lawmakers said the idea of restructuring how the university is governed would likely be revisited, possibly with committee hearings this summer.
Economic Opportunity Act
Another bill that got held up Thursday night was the New Jersey Economic Opportunity Act, which seeks to merge the state’s five major tax incentive programs into just two specializing in redevelopment and business retention and development.
Although New Jersey’s business advocates have labeled the bill crucial, in part because two of the most successful incentive programs, the Grown New Jersey assistance program and Urban Transit Hub Program, are nearing their $1.75 billion funding cap, the bill hit a snag due to some last-minute amendments approved by the Assembly but still pending before the full Senate.
The bill continues to be opposed by some environmental groups that believe it will encourage sprawl development of open space and areas of the environmentally-sensitive Pinelands.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.