GOP calls for lawmakers to return to Trenton are met with silence

By: - September 17, 2021 7:06 am

The nearly $3.4 million in independent spending in the 2nd and 8th districts accounts for 52% of all such spending statewide. (Getty Images)

Republican lawmakers have redoubled their efforts to force legislators to return to Trenton ahead of the November election in recent weeks, but their calls appear to have gone unheeded.

On Thursday, Sen. Steve Oroho (R-Sussex) and Assemblyman Hal Wirths (R-Sussex) called on Democratic chairs Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen) and Assemblywoman Eliana Pintor Marin (D-Essex) to convene the Joint Budget Oversight Committee.

That bicameral six-member panel is tasked with administering funds from the $3.7 billion fund lawmakers created in June to pay down existing debt and forestall future borrowing. But the committee cannot spend any of the fund, which includes money for capital projects, without an appropriation from the Legislature, and there’s no indication Democratic leaders have deviated from their plan to reconvene only after the election.

“If I were governor, I would have had my accounting team going through that immediately and see what’s the best use for that money to pay off or shovel-ready projects that could get started and get people back to work with infrastructure,” Wirths said. “In my own household, and as a small businessman, I would’ve done that yesterday.”

Pintor Marin, Sarlo, and Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester) did not return calls seeking comment Thursday.

Politics seems to be ruling inside the bowels of Trenton right now.

– Sen. Joe Pennacchio (R-Morris)

Before the debt defeasance bill was approved in June, senior Democratic staff in both chambers said they had identified roughly $3.2 billion in debt that could be paid down, but that money — and billions more in federal aid — have sat largely untouched for months amid calls for the state to head off an automatic increase to the state’s unemployment insurance tax set to take effect in October.

Those calls have come mostly from Republicans, but a scattering of Democratic lawmakers, including Sens. Linda Greenstein (D-Middlesex), Vin Gopal (D-Monmouth), and Dawn Addiego (D-Burlington), have voiced support for action to head of the tax increase, which would refill the state’s depleted Unemployment Trust Fund. The tax hike would affect only businesses.

Seeing an opportunity, every Republican member of the Legislature earlier this month signed onto a petition that would force the body to convene for a special session if majorities from both chambers signed on, but Democratic support has been slow in coming.

“It’s still zero,” Wirths said. “That I don’t expect to happen. They run a tight ship.”

The length of the Legislature’s break has also gotten some attention.

While the chambers do not typically convene in July or August, save for the rare confirmation or the even rarer cleanup bill, the length of this year’s break has drawn some criticism.

But while four-month recesses have been rare in recent years, they’re hardly unprecedented.

“You used to see it an awful lot,” said Sen. Joe Pennacchio (R-Morris). “At the very, very beginning, when we were first there, during election years especially, we’d have a summer break, and we wouldn’t come back until after the election.”

Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick (R-Union), who has held his seat since 2003, said he doesn’t recall the Assembly returning before the lame duck session in an election year, adding the Senate sometimes did. All 120 legislative seats are on November’s ballot.

The precedent has done little to assuage GOP lawmakers, but the prospects of a return before November are exceedingly dim.

While the Senate could return for a high-profile confirmation, like that of New Jersey Supreme Court nominee Rachel Wainer Apter, an unwritten rule that allows legislators to indefinitely block nominees from their home county means those incentives won’t be present in the near future.

“I truly think we need to be solutions oriented, and the only way we’re going to arrive at solutions is, in fact, to be in session,” said Sen. Michael Testa (R-Cumberland).

Complicating matters further are the dozens of unsigned bills sitting on Gov. Phil Murphy’s desk. Each of those has been there for more than 45 days, so they would become law without Murphy’s signature when the chambers next convene for quorums.

Many of those bills, passed in June voting sessions, are still being reviewed by the administration, and at least one of them appears headed toward a conditional veto.

The unsigned bills are a factor in the stalled swearing in of Vince Polistina (R-Atlantic), whom Republican County Committee members picked to fill the Senate seat left vacant when Chris Brown resigned in July to join the Murphy administration.

Republicans have accused Democratic leaders of politicking over Polistina’s swearing-in and have levied similar claims over calls to curtail the governor’s emergency powers and launch a select committee to investigate the widespread death seen in the state’s nursing homes near the start of the pandemic.

“Politics seems to be ruling inside the bowels of Trenton right now,” Pennacchio said

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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.