Elections over, New Jersey Democrats plan lame-duck agenda

Casino smoking ban, public records law, liquor license restrictions may be among targets

By: - November 9, 2023 4:14 pm

Senate President Nicholas Scutari speaks to reporters during a Nov. 9, 2023, briefing at the Statehouse in Trenton. (Dana DiFilippo | New Jersey Monitor)

Democratic legislative leaders repeatedly declined to provide details on their lame-duck agenda priorities during a Statehouse press conference Thursday, though they suggested changes to public records, liquor license, and campaign finance law could get some consideration.

The lame-duck session, a roughly two-month-long period following legislative elections, is typically a chaotic time in Trenton defined by lawmaking that moves at a breakneck pace and a general lack of electoral consequence.

During a press conference at the Statehouse Thursday morning, Senate President Nicholas Scutari (D-Union) and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-Middlesex) declined to name priorities, both their own and ones they would pursue on behalf of their members.

“We haven’t finalized our lame-duck agenda. It’s something that we work on. We had preliminary discussions before, and we will continue to get to more final discussions,” Coughlin told reporters.

The agenda is likely to include leftover measures lawmakers did not pass before embarking on a five-month break after approving the state budget in June.

Other, more controversial measures are also expected to see votes during lame duck, and those could include competing proposals to tweak the Open Public Records Act. The contours of those changes remain blurry.

Assemblyman Joe Danielsen (D-Middlesex) in June introduced a bill package that would curtail access to a host of public records and remove requestors’ ability to sue governments that fail to follow the law, instead directing them to the Government Records Council, an obscure body that takes years to adjudicate records disputes.

Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen), the Senate budget chairman and one of the Legislature’s few remaining dual officeholders — he is mayor of Wood-Ridge — is reportedly working on a separate set of OPRA changes.

Lawmakers are working to reconcile the two proposals, Coughlin said. Both legislative leaders said they want to revamp the law over critiques from local government officials that commercial requests drive up costs for municipalities and, by extension, taxpayers.

“Twenty years have gone by. Much of this information is available online, and the professionalism and the way in which OPRA has been, in some cases, weaponized and just made cottage industries has cost taxpayers innumerable amounts of money,” Scutari said.

They also suggested a recent law that dramatically changed election rules could get a fresh look. That law ballooned campaign contribution limits, cut the statute of limitations on campaign finance investigations by 80%, and voided a requirement that independent expenditure groups report fundraising and spending in the final days before an election.

The law, which swelled fundraising among vulnerable Democrats and their chamber leadership, came under scrutiny this cycle after an independent expenditure group boosting independent spoilers in two competitive districts filed campaign finance reports that showed spending but no fundraising.

Absent the new law, the group would have been required to report some fundraising in the 13 days preceding Election Day, a fact Scutari appeared to deny.

“I think we have to make an analysis of the election as it transpired, so that’s one of the things we’re going to look at. I’m not sure there is that loophole,” he said.

Changes to the state’s liquor license restrictions are expected to reemerge as an issue over the next two months. Though lawmakers approved a bill lifting a series of restrictions on breweries and other craft alcohol manufacturers, they’ve resisted Gov. Phil Murphy’s push for wider changes that would increase the number of available licenses.

A spokesperson for the governor in September told the New Jersey Monitor the governor would conditionally veto the brewery bill to add a series of other liquor license provisions that are expected to include laxer population limits staunchly opposed by existing retail license holders, who have paid hundreds of thousands of dollars or more to sell alcohol at their bars or restaurants.

“We will continue to look at what the governor proposes. We’ll listen to our members. Almost all of them have some opinion on liquor license reform, so we’ll use the governor’s suggestions as the starting point for that review,” Coughlin said.

Scutari said his chamber had already begun the work needed to confirm new judges to address longstanding court vacancies that have seen civil and divorce trials suspended in four counties. Such trials have been on hold in Hunterdon, Somerset, and Warren counties since February and were suspended in Passaic County in July.

Though lawmakers made some strides to reduce vacancies before breaking for the summer, neither the Senate nor its judiciary committee have convened since to advance judicial nominations, despite a suggestion from Scutari that they would. Sen. Brian Stack (D-Hudson) chairs that committee.

There are 65 vacant spots on the bench, and at least one more judge is expected to retire by the end of the year. Court officials say courts can operate adequately with up to 30 vacancies.

“We’re keenly aware of the task that is before us in the Senate Judiciary Committee. I’ve been in touch with Senator Stack, and as I’ve said before, we can only consider for confirmation the nominations that are given to us,” Scutari said.

Coughlin did give one concrete item on his lame-duck agenda — a long-stalled bill to ban indoor smoking in casinos.

“It is something that will certainly be under consideration during the lame-duck period. I know both houses have bills that we have been considering for some time now, and I think it’s time for us to take a look and see what we can get done,” Coughlin said.

That proposal has been in stasis for years, with Atlantic City’s casinos opposing it for fears that a smoking ban would push gamblers to wager in neighboring states. The bill’s supporters say it’s needed to protect the health of casino workers.

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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.