S-1 Standoff: Assembly Leadership Holds Strong

The process of how New Jersey should handle the need for affordable housing changed when there was an organized uprising of people calling for a more open process than what Sen. Ray Lesniak wanted to allow. We owe a lot to activists who flooded key legislators’ offices with calls demanding more transparency. And we owe a lot to those legislators who listened. But it’s not over. – promoted by Rosi Efthim

With the clock ticking towards Gov. Christie’s artificial June 30 deadline for passing the much-reviled S-1, the Assembly Budget Committee yesterday called the Governor’s bluff. Gov. Christie had come up with the June 30 deadline because that is when a moratorium on commercial developers paying a 2.5 percent fee on new development for housing trust funds is due to sunset. But everyone in Trenton knew that it was possible to extend the moratorium without simultaneously passing S-1. And yesterday the Assembly Budget Committee unanimously voted out a bill that would do just that.

The reaction: instant fury from Sen. Lesniak and Senate President Sweeney, who vowed not to allow the bill, A3055, see the Senate floor even though it is likely to pass the Assembly Monday with near-unanimous support. Lesniak and Sweeney supported the Governor’s fake deadline, with Lesniak calling the four month extension of the moratorium “an absolute waste of time.” Never mind that Lesniak himself authored the original bill imposing the year-long moratorium last year, and has been railing against its end for the past six months. (The fee comes from the landmark 2008 housing legislation A-500, and ironically was pushed by the non-residential developers themselves as a way to standardize such fees, which have been around for over two decades, across the state).

What is going on here? More after the jump.

Basically, once there was finally an open public hearing on S-1 after months of a Senate process more at home in an authoritarian regime than in American democracy (with the lowlight being a Senate committee vote on S-1 without allowing any public testimony or even allowing the public to see the bill), support for the bill crumbled. The Assembly Housing and Local Government Committee had a fair and open hearing last Thursday – expertly handled by Committee Chair Jerry Green and Vice-Chair Mila Jasey, who allowed everyone present to testify and, along with the other members of the committee, paid close attention and asked tough questions to all sides. The result: it became increasingly clear that S-1 wasn’t ready for prime time, based on scathing opposition from everyone from the NAACP to the Catholic bishops to the New Jersey Builders Association to Habitat for Humanity to the New Jersey Regional Coalition to the Sierra Club (OK, I’ll stop there, but there were lots more groups too). Editorials in the Star Ledger, Asbury Park Press, and New Jersey Law Journal all praised the committee’s hearing and made it clear that the bill was deeply flawed and unconstitutional. You can read them all, plus get some interesting local context on Green’s strong opposition to S-1 based on its impact on Plainfield, on Jerry Green’s blog.

The Assembly, holding strong against tremendous pressure, then committed to not moving the bill forward before June 30, and Assembly members Coutinho, Green, Jasey, Spencer, and, very interestingly, Wisniewski introduced A3055. Coutinho shepherded the bill through the Budget Committee yesterday, explaining that he wanted COAH reform, but he wanted to do it right, and this bill would provide a window until October 30 to do so. An potential fight over the bill failed to materialize, with all committee members of both parties voting for the bill with no debate.

The Senate’s attempt to block A3055 represents a final salvo in trying to ram S1 through, though an apparently quixotic one given the degree of opposition in the Assembly. Particularly interesting is the role of Sweeney, who is trying to push the bill despite the strong opposition from the South Jersey delegation over the bill’s disparate treatment of South Jersey.

So what happens from here? Barring any last minute changes, the Senate will be faced with a decision of whether to let a moratorium that enjoys strong political support lapse. And the entire Legislature will work over the next few months to come up with housing reform that actually works.

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