During day one of the lame duck legislative session on Nov. 8 in Trenton, more than 100 bills were signed, vetoed, sent back to lawmakers for changes or approved in committee.
The cascade of legislative and executive moves comes with just weeks remaining before the Democrats’ control over the Legislature weakens. The party lost six seats to Republicans in the state Assembly and two in the state Senate, most notable being the upset victory of commercial truck driver Ed Durr over South Jersey powerplayer Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-3rd District.
Sweeney has yet to concede, but according to various reports will make an announcement as soon as Nov. 9.
Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat, narrowly won a second term in his race against Jack Ciattarelli, a Republican former state Assemblyman.
“The South is absolutely convinced that they lost the election because of Murphy,” and his progressive policies, said one person in the state Legislature, who asked not to be identified. “I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re pretty ornery.”
For Sweeney, the lame duck session is his “last big chance to get things done where he’s got a lot of leverage.”
“He is still in charge of redistricting, which matters to every single state senator out there, and that is an extremely material thing,” said another Trenton insider. “Even as his power diminishes … it won’t diminish to nothing.”
According to this person, the major players in Trenton – Murphy, Sweeney and the state’s other top lawmaker, Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, D-19th District – have an incentive to keep the infighting to a minimum. “This is uncharted territory, so I don’t think anybody wants to fight – because there’s going to be enough fighting to do with Republicans next year,” the insider added.
Nonetheless, the governor’s progressive impulses could still run afoul of the more centrist tendencies of many South Jersey Democrats. “Murphy’s in a pickle. His desire is to play to the progressives. The reality is New Jersey just said ‘f**k you on progressives,’” the insider said.
Murphy on Monday signed 53 bills, conditionally vetoed another 25 bills – meaning he asked the state Legislature to make changes to them – and rejected 10 more.
One measure sent back to the Legislature would have required health insurers to cover telehealth services even after the end of the pandemic, though it sat unsigned on Murphy’s desk for months.
In his conditional veto message, the governor asked that parity for telehealth costs sunset at the start of July, when the state’s new fiscal year starts. He also called for a study gauging telehealth’s effects on the state health care system and he seeks to cut $5 million in proposed spending from the bill.
Two Assembly committees and four Senate committees met on Monday.
One point of contention during the lame duck could be Senate Bill 1530, under which a “Revenue Advisory Board” with members from the executive and legislative branches and an outside expert that would hold hearings on the state budget and provide a fiscal and economic outlook for the state.
The bill would preserve the governor’s constitutional authority to certify revenues when signing the state budget, but he would have to explain any differences between what he signs and what the advisory board releases.
“It’s not something Sweeney would do if he thought he were going to be the next governor,” the legislative official said. “It’s really good policy, but it takes a lot of power away from the governor. There’s no way the governor’s signing it.”
Proponents like Sen. Steven Oroho, the incoming Senate Republican Leader, contend that the state’s current budgetary forecasting model produces “inconsistent numbers.”
“Collaboration will ensure that neither the executive or legislative branch has too much influence over the numbers, and prevent overly optimistic projections from impacting budget integrity,” Oroho, R-24th District, said in a statement.