Nicholas Scutari’s first year as Senate president gets bipartisan high marks

By: - December 26, 2022 7:00 am

Senate President Nick Scutari is winning positive reviews for his first year leading the Senate, though there are some GOP quibbles. (Daniella Heminghaus for New Jersey Monitor)

This week marks the end of Senate President Nicholas Scutari’s first year at the helm of the upper chamber, and members of both parties say they are satisfied with his performance as the state’s most powerful legislator.

Scutari, an attorney and former municipal prosecutor who first joined the Senate in 2004, ascended to the presidency in January after Steve Sweeney, the longtime Senate president, left the chamber on the heels of an unexpected electoral defeat. The Union County Democrat stepped into a role that controls the movement of all bills and nominations through the upper chamber.

“He’s a consensus builder. He’s not an authoritarian,” said Sen. Vin Gopal, a Monmouth County Democrat. “He’s about how to build consensus, and I think that’s healthy when you have a Democratic caucus of 24 members with a wide array of views and wide interests. He’s able to build unity and try to get compromise.”

Scutari, who is also the Democratic chairman in Union County, entered his role with a promise to slow the pace of lawmaking in a chamber that often approved bills at a breakneck pace.

Sens. Declan O’Scanlon (R-Monmouth) and Joe Pennacchio (R-Morris) said Scutari had largely kept to that promise, adding the new Senate president has been responsive and accommodating to requests from members of the minority caucus.

“The only real way to improve the operation as a whole would be to have Senate President Oroho up there or Senate President O’Scanlon,” O’Scanlon said. “But since until January of ’24 that won’t happen, I’m willing to work very well with Nick Scutari.”

Sen. Steve Oroho (R-Sussex) is the Senate’s minority leader.

The Senate has, on occasion, returned to the mammoth board lists that have dominated Trenton for much of the last decade. Under Sweeney, the chamber almost always waived a rule that limited voting session board lists to 30 bills, but that rule has remained in place during all but a few sessions under Scutari.

Sen. Joe Pennacchio (Daniella Heminghaus for New Jersey Monitor)

“I think Nick is mindful that sometimes we have these crazy sessions where, oh my God, almost 200 bills by the end. And that’s not good government,” Pennacchio said. “When we do things like this now, it’s slowed down. It’s not quantity — it’s quality.”

Scutari’s office declined to make him available for an interview.

There was one high-profile headache for Scutari this year when his chief of staff, Tony Teixeira, resigned before pleading guilty in federal court to federal fraud and tax charges in November. Scutari has not been implicated in that case, and he has said he is glad Teixeria is “accepting responsibility for his personal financial actions.”

O’Scanlon said Scutari has more work to do to fulfill a promise the Senate president made at his swearing-in to be more bipartisan. Scutari said then he aimed to be a “consensus builder.”

Though the Senate has advanced a number of bills introduced by Republican members over this past year, O’Scanlon said Scutari largely ignored a GOP budget proposal that would have, among other things, indexed New Jersey’s tax brackets to inflation.

“We’re less down the road on that front,” O’Scanlon said. “The Republican budget alternative was detailed, sound policy, and a very doable alternative, and much more responsible than this budget that we passed, and that was ignored.”

Still, O’Scanlon noted, Scutari backed his proposal to bar New Jersey from sharing motorists’ information with states issuing red-light or speed camera tickets. The Senate unanimously approved that bill in June.

Scutari’s counterpart in the lower chamber — Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-Middlesex) — also gave the new Senate president high marks for his first year, noting the two have developed a strong working relationship off the backbone of a decades-long friendship.

“We started off at a place of respect and trust and all of those things you would hope for as you go forward building a relationship, but I think our relationship’s even gotten stronger,” Coughlin said. “I have great regard for the work that he has done.”

Scutari will be tested in his position again next year, when state revenue is expected to descend to normal levels after a post-pandemic tax boom that made New Jersey’s government flush. As revenue moderates, the legislative leadership will be faced with difficult budgeting decisions, including on rising municipal costs that lawmakers have yet to address.

“We really haven’t tackled a lot of the difficult issues, and we have to see how that goes,” said Sen. Bob Singer (R-Ocean). “We’re going to have to deal with the issue in both the rise in health insurance and the cost of increased pension payments that are affecting municipalities and counties around the state.”

Sophie Nieto-Muñoz contributed to this story.

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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.