Supporters vow to revive some of the 10K bills now dead in Trenton
With new legislative session starting, advocates say they’ll continue fighting
The Legislature sent Gov. Phil Murphy a slew of bills this week, but a number of high-profile measures died when its last session ended Tuesday. (Rich Hundley III/ NJ Governors Office)
When the 220th New Jersey Legislature held its last voting sessions Monday, lawmakers rushed to send dozens of bills to Gov. Phil Murphy for his signature, handing him bills to raise their pay, grant new labor protections to domestic workers, and ease restrictions on craft breweries, among a slew of others.
But a host of bills the Legislature has considered since the session started in January 2022 never made it to a final vote. Now, they all go back to the starting line, where they must be reintroduced and heard by legislative committees if supporters want them passed by the 221st Legislature.
Some of the bills spent years in limbo and came tantalizingly close to passage, leaving their supporters frustrated, angry, or, in some cases, energized. Liza Weisberg, staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, said this is all to be expected.
“Ultimately, we know that the democratic process is a messy one, and we’re in it for the long haul,” Weisberg said.
Most bills state lawmakers introduce never become laws. Of 10,654 bills and resolutions introduced in the last two-year legislative session, Gov. Phil Murphy approved just about 400. He has until Jan. 16 to sign — or reject — the final group of bills passed in the last session.
Expanding the jury pool
Among the bills that came close to the finish line in the last session but didn’t make it to Murphy’s desk is one that would allow people with criminal convictions to sit on juries.
Supporters say ending the state’s ban on this practice would reduce racial disparities in juries and allow people who have paid their debt to society to resume their full civic obligations. Lawmakers opposed to the bill said they worry people with criminal histories would not be fair and impartial on juries.
New Jersey remains one of four states with a permanent ban on people convicted of indictable offenses serving on juries. States as conservative as Indiana and North Dakota allow people with convictions to serve on juries once their sentences are complete.
“We don’t see the need for the jury exclusion law. The voie dire (selection) process already provides an individualized screening of prospective jurors so there’s no reason to categorically exclude any group of people, including people with felony convictions,” said Weisberg.
The bill’s supporters criticized Assembly lawmakers for amending it to bar people convicted of murder and aggravated sexual assault, a change the bill’s supporters opposed. The bill passed the Assembly 52-23 on Monday, but it never received a hearing in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee. That panel’s chair, Sen. Brian Stack, is a sponsor of the bill but tabled a vote on it after Republicans on the committee argued against passage.
Weisberg said she expects the bill to be reintroduced.
“I hope that those sort of issues are being addressed and we start with a clean slate in this new session,” she said.
The delay of one bill in the last session angered its supporters so much that they lit up cigarettes in the Statehouse in protest.
Legislation to ban smoking in casinos faced several Senate health committee hearings but stopped short of advancing because it didn’t have the necessary support on the panel. An overwhelming number of lawmakers signed on to co-sponsor the measure, but some pulled their backing amid complaints from the casino industry.
Casino workers say they fear the health effects of being forced to inhale secondhand smoke. Lobbyists for the casino industry argue the smoking ban would cost Atlantic City up to 2,500 jobs, and they wanted to see the bill amended to allow for enclosed smoking rooms for some gamblers, a suggestion the bill’s sponsor opposed.
More than 20 other states ban smoking in gambling halls.
Pete Naccarelli, a Borgata dealer and co-founder of Casino Employees Against Smoking’s Effects, said he was disappointed by how the process played out but feels more hopeful than ever. He noted the governor has signaled he’d sign the bill.
“The fact that it didn’t pass when it probably should have passed has gotten people riled up and upset, just gotten more angry and willing to fight harder,” Naccarelli said. “We’re going to keep fighting, to say the least.”
A version of the bill has been introduced in every legislative session since 2006, when New Jersey first banned smoking indoors at most public places.
Family leave expansion scuttled
Legislation that would have expanded guaranteed family leave benefits to workers at some of the state’s smallest businesses stalled amid concerns about whether those businesses could realistically keep workers taking up to 12 weeks of family leave on staff.
The bill would have reduced the employee threshold for family leave protections from 30 to five over the course of two years, but it ran up against concerns from the Senate’s top Democrat, who worried it would be impractical for businesses with so few employees.
“I think small businesses have a lot to be concerned about with the version of the bill that I saw,” Senate President Nicholas Scutari (D-Union) said following the Senate’s Dec. 21 voting session.
Advocates have praised the bill in relative terms. They say the bill would help boost a 15-year-old family leave program that too few New Jerseyans use, but they’d rather it go further. An initial version of the bill would have expanded family leave to all businesses.
“We’re hoping next session that we start the conversation and advance a bill that provides job protection for everyone who participates in this program. The bill that didn’t pass was a far cry from that,” said Dena Mottola Jaborska. “It did a little bit of expanding, but really not enough and definitely not for everyone.”
The bill won approval by the Assembly in a 44-27 vote in December but did not come to a vote before a Senate committee.
Criminal justice reform
Several bills backed by criminal justice reformers failed to pass, including a bill that would have allowed a handful of New Jersey municipalities to create civilian review boards with subpoena power to examine cases of police misconduct. Such independent oversight has been a longtime goal of advocates to improve accountability, along with making police disciplinary records public.
The bill made it out of Assembly committees both last year and in 2021, but it hasn’t budged in the Senate in either of the last two legislative sessions. Police unions have fought it vigorously.
Another bill that stalled in committee would have protected children under age 14 from being criminally arrested, prosecuted, and punished for wrongdoing.
Current law ignores brain science that has driven a trend toward leniency in juvenile justice in recent years, said Sen. Raj Mukherji (D-Hudson), who was the bill’s prime sponsor in the Assembly last session.
New Jersey is one of 24 states that sets no minimum age for juvenile delinquency.
“Even deep red states have a minimum age of delinquency, while New Jersey has not,” Mukherji added.
An Assembly committee advanced the bill in December, but the state Attorney General’s Office raised some concerns that derailed the bill, including whether certain offenses should be carved out and whether officers could detain youth suspected of violent crimes without creating a juvenile record, Mukherji said.
He plans to reintroduce it in the new session, keeping an amendment added in the last session that would create a working group to decide such thorny issues.
“Balancing public safety with the trauma and adverse impact on the youth (of criminal justice involvement) is something that we have to consider, so there were a couple of areas where we felt like we needed to fill the gaps,” he said.
Another bill prompted partially by a class-action lawsuit on expungements also never made it to a full vote in either chamber. An Assembly committee advanced it last month, but it never gained traction in the Senate.
The measure would have required New Jersey State Police, the agency that fields requests for background checks, to first check for any unprocessed court orders for expungements before releasing someone’s criminal records. The state Office of the Public Defender sued the agency in October, saying it has fallen up to two years behind in processing such orders, costing people jobs, housing, professional licenses, and other opportunities.
Nikki Tierney, policy analyst for the National Center for Advocacy and Recovery, testified before lawmakers last month in support of that bill. Wednesday, she told the New Jersey Monitor that legislators should revive it in the new session, pointing to the governor’s claim Tuesday in his State of the State address that New Jersey is the “state of second chances.”
“I’m very hopeful that this upcoming legislative session, we will continue to follow the evidence, which shows that expungements do not make the community less safe, can increase one’s earning capacity by up to 22% in the first year, and people who receive expungements are no more likely to be convicted of a crime in the future than a member of the general public,” Tierney said.
Social media use
Assemblyman Herb Conaway wants to shield children from the toxicity of social media, but a bill he said would do so failed to advance after civil liberties advocates and tech companies joined in opposition.
Conaway, a physician, likened the bill to other efforts to protect the health of minors.
“A lot of my service has been about looking after kids and what’s in their best interest. Anti-smoking legislation and the like, raising the tobacco age, raising the cost of tobacco products, all partly designed to protect children from addiction,” he said. “Social media is, unfortunately, one of the newest forms of addiction to come forward.”
The bill would have required minors to get their parents’ consent to open a social media account. Privacy advocates opposed the bill because it would have required social media companies to verify the age of all of its users, even adults. A tech industry trade group said the bill would require social media companies to collect information that would put their customers’ privacy at risk.
Conaway said he plans to reintroduce the bill, which failed to make it to a floor vote in either chamber. He noted that the bill was amended after civil liberties experts expressed alarm at language in the initial version of the measure that may have forced users to provide government-issued IDs to companies like Facebook or Instagram in order to open accounts.
“We’ve taken steps to address the privacy concerns,” he said.
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