Largely uncontroversial unsigned bills factoring into Polistina swearing-in

By: - August 30, 2021 7:00 am
Governor Phil Murphy signing a bill

The new law expands New Jersey’s existing anti-discrimination statute to protect older employees. (Photo by Fran Baltzer for the New Jersey Monitor)

Many of the bills that would be made law if the state Senate calls a quorum to swear in Republican Vince Polistina cleared the chamber with bipartisan support, but the list isn’t without some controversial legislation.

The 67 unsigned bills are wide-ranging and include measures that would mandate cultural sensitivity training for teachers, assign unemployment claims handlers to legislative offices, and create a fund for opioid addiction prevention fueled by legal settlements with two pharmaceutical giants.

Senate President Stephen Sweeney told the New Jersey Monitor last week the 67 bills — which would become law automatically if the Senate convenes before Gov. Phil Murphy signs them — were a factor in his decision not to call a Senate quorum to swear in Polistina.

Legislation requiring cultural sensitivity training was one of the bills to face measurable Republican opposition. If the Senate makes an about-face on its extended break and reconvenes before November to swear in Polistina, he is unlikely to face electoral consequences for the bill becoming law, said Micah Rasmussen, director of Rider University’s Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics.

“I think the risk to him of a bill taking effect that he didn’t want to take effect is probably going to be much lower because legislative majorities in both houses passed all these bills already,” he said. “It’s not like they’re tremendously controversial to begin with.”

Former State Sen. Chris Brown (R-Atlantic), who held the 2nd District Senate seat until mid-July, was one of three Republicans to vote in favor of the cultural sensitivity training bill, which is among the most politically charged of the Senate’s unsigned measures.

Also among the bills:

  • S2765, S2766, and S2767 would make various reforms to increase diversity in the ranks of New Jersey’s law enforcement organizations. A separate measure, S1322, would bar police departments from using arrests and citations to evaluate officers’ performance.
  • S2525 would expand the powers of New Jersey’s chief diversity officer and encourage more diverse hires for state government posts.
  • S1877 would require universities to provide all students with a document showing the cost and debt accrued by attendance. Existing law mandates such disclosures only for prospective students.

In New Jersey, bills that sit unsigned on the governor’s desk for 45 days become law when the chamber that spawned them next meets for a quorum. That rule does provide the governor with a window to sign or veto bills, but it can be exceedingly narrow.

Sweeney (D-Gloucester) said his promise that the chamber would not reconvene until after November’s election was the chief reason for the delay in Polistina’s official swearing-in. All 120 legislative seats are on the ballot.

There’s nothing to suggest the Senate will reverse course and meet sooner than November.

Republican senators have railed against the delay, calling it blatantly political and charging the vacancy has deprived 2nd District residents of constituent services provided by a senator.

“The Atlantic County residents who were being serviced in the 2nd District by their senator’s office deserve a swift and orderly transition to ensure their needs are met in a timely fashion,” six GOP leaders said in a statement Friday. “Many cannot afford to wait until November to have Senator Polistina begin working for them, as the senate president has insisted they must.”

Sens. Tom Kean Jr., Bob Singer, Kristin Corrado, Joe Pennacchio, Kip Bateman, and Steve Oroho signed onto the latest call for Polistina to be seated.

After Brown resigned, Republican county committee people in the second district picked Polistina for the seat on Aug. 4. He announced he was launching a constituent services operation two days later, which Rasmussen said makes the GOP’s claims that the 2nd District lacks representation ring hollow.

“He made a big deal about how he was opening a legislative office right away, and I think in so doing, he really negated a lot of the argument that Atlantic County is without advocacy right now,” Rasmussen said.

Polistina said he sees it a different way. When he made the Aug. 6 announcement, he had access to a legislative office and its phones, the senator-select said. But that office has since been shuttered, and Polistina said he’s been denied access.

“The problem is the main number … has got nobody answering it,” he told the New Jersey Monitor. “It’s just like the stuff that goes on in Trenton now. You call and you get nobody picking up the phone.”

He’s still responding to constituent calls made to a cell phone number he publicized at the time of the Aug. 6 announcement.

The Egg Harbor Township resident faces Assemblyman Vince Mazzeo (D-Atlantic) in his bid for a full term in the legislature’s upper chamber.

The district is one of only three in New Jersey with representation split between Republicans and Democrats. It is expected to host one of the state’s most competitive races of the year.

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Nikita Biryukov
Nikita Biryukov

Nikita Biryukov most recently covered state government and politics for the New Jersey Globe. His tenure there included revelatory stories on marijuana legalization, voting reform and Rep. Jeff Van Drew's decamp to the Republican Party. Earlier, he worked as a freelancer for The Home News Tribune and The Press of Atlantic City.