Slow legislative progress on constitutional amendments

The current lame duck session will be hectic through its end on January 12 particularly with the introduction in the past few days of bills proposing three important constitutional amendments. All of these bills are at a very early stage with less than a month to be enacted. There are detractors for each proposed amendment, complexities in some which can confuse voters, disagreement between the two legislative houses on one, a Republican counter proposal on another and no agreement from the governor on any of them.

The proposed amendments are concurrent resolutions, which for each requires identical bills passed in each house by the end of the current session. Fortunately concurrent resolutions do not need approval of the the governor. The amendments will be placed on the November General Election ballot if each house approves them in the next few weeks with a majority vote and again early in the new session by another majority vote. Alternately they can appear on the ballot if approved only in one early session next year by both houses with 60% of the vote, which is harder to achieve.

STATE PAYMENTS TO PENSION RETIREMENT PLANS – SCR184 sponsored by Sweeney, Turner & Greenstein, and ACR3 sponsored by Prieto. Introduced on December 7, 2015

  • This amendment is the most advanced in the legislative process where both houses are working on an identical proposal. It was approved in a Senate committee along partisan lines but has not yet been approved in an Assembly Committee. The Democratic legislature likely has the majority needed to pass the proposal, although the governor and Republican legislators have expressed opposition and it could be contested in court. It faces an uncertain fate from the voters. The amendment is complicated with clauses affecting both state employees and the government, and to fully understand its impact requires reading a spread sheet.
  • Its key provisions require ”the State to make its full pension contribution payment commencing July 1, 2021, and in each fiscal year thereafter, but requires partially increasing contributions over a period of four years, starting in  fiscal year 2017 when only 60 percent of the payment is required. Quarterly payments are required to accelerate the return on investment of the pension systems.”

ESTABLISHMENT OF CASINOS IN CERTAIN COUNTIES SCR 185 sponsored by Sarlo, Sweeney, Weinberg, and Gordon, and ACR257 sponsored by DeAngelo and Egan. Introduced on December 10, 2015

  • The bill was referred to a Senate committee which so far has taken no action. In the Assembly as of Friday the bill had not even been referred to a committee. Speaker Prieto has said, “The Assembly may well have its own ideas about how best to bring gaming to North Jersey, stabilize Atlantic City, and support programs for senior citizens and the disabled,” so the Assembly may introduce a different bill. The issue divides northern and southern legislators, and it’s not clear whether voters would ultimately approve casinos in the north. The current bill includes matters related to games of chance, state lottery and other issues.
  • In its most important provisions the current Senate bill indicates “The Legislature shall authorize by law the establishment and operation of no more than two gambling houses or casinos, each one to be located in different counties of this State. The boundaries shall be outside a 75 mile radius of Atlantic City. 49 percent of the state revenue shall be dedicated (i) to recovery, stabilization, or improvement of the city of Atlantic City and 49% (ii) to State aid to each county and municipality for programs and property tax relief for senior citizens and disabled residents and for such other purposes as the Legislature shall provide. For the next subsequent 10 years the percentage applied for the purposes of (i) above shall decrease by three percentage points and the percentage applied for the purposes of (ii) above shall increase by three percentage points.”

DEDICATING ALL GAS TAX REVENUES TO THE TRANSPORTATION TRUST FUND – ACR1 sponsored by Prieto. Introduced December 14, 2015

  • The Assembly has referred the bill to a committee which has not yet taken any action. There is no identical bill in the Senate now, but Sen. President Sweeney has said that while he hadn’t yet seen the [Assembly] legislation, he supports dedicated revenues. As of now there is no firm agreement between the governor and Democratic legislative leaders on increasing the gas tax as Republicans want such a bill to include the reduction of other taxes. Republican Senator Jennifer Beck has proposed, but not yet introduced a bill, which she claims will replenish the transportation fund without increasing the gas tax. While there is substantial voter opposition to increasing the gas tax, there is likely little opposition to dedicating the gas tax revenue exclusively to the fund. The impact of the bill takes on more substance if it were to include a gas tax increase.
  • In essence the proposed Assembly amendment as it now stands will ask “Do you approve amending the Constitution to dedicate all revenue from the State motor fuels tax and petroleum products gross receipts tax to the Transportation Trust Fund? This amendment does not change the current tax on motor fuels or petroleum products gross receipts.”

It’s not to say that all three bills will not be passed shortly, but we are witnessing a race against the clock with conflicts galore, a lot more effort needed, and uncertain outcomes.

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