Lawmakers approved hundreds of bills on Jan. 13 – the last Assembly and Senate voting session of the 2018-2019 legislative year – which Gov. Phil Murphy has until Jan. 21 to act upon. But lawmakers left behind a lot of unfinished business. Here is a rundown of issues the Legislature took up during the most recent session but did not resolve.
Corporate tax breaks
New Jersey has been without a broad economic incentive program for over six months, ever since the July 1 expiration of the Grow New Jersey corporate tax breaks, and the Economic Redevelopment and Growth gap financing program. Both schemes have been the subject to state and – reportedly, federal – investigations in the past year.
Murphy has repeatedly pushed for a hard annual awards cap on the next regime, arguing that otherwise the state could incur runaway costs while awarding billions of dollars in tax breaks to companies that might not have needed them in the first place.
Murphy has proposed five incentive programs capped at $400 million a year, including NJ Forward, which would replace Grow NJ and be capped at $200 million a year; the proposed NJ Aspire, which would replace ERG, would be capped at $100 million a year.
Legislative leaders have opposed an overall cap, worrying that businesses might avoid the state if they were uncertain about whether they would be shut out of the programs once the annual limit is reached.
Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-3rd District, said he would like to wait until a task force Murphy convened to study the genesis and processes of the Grow NJ and ERG completes its work before moving on a new set of incentives. That could push consideration of replacements to the end of April.
Plastic bag ban
Although the Senate passed a bill on Jan. 13 that would prohibit most Styrofoam containers, along with plastic and paper single-use bags, the measure died in the Assembly. The measure also would have regulated plastic utensils and straws, making it so that businesses could only give out straws when requested by a customer. The bill’s main backer, Sen. Bob Smith, D-17th District, who chairs the Senate Environment Committee, said he plans to move ahead with the bill again in January.
Murphy attempted to enact a millionaire’s tax during the 2019 and 2020 budget cycles. Lawmakers blocked both efforts. Under the proposal, the state would raise the income tax rate from 8.97 percent to 10.75 percent for every dollar earned above $1 million – a rate that was applied in 2018 to earnings above $5 million. Murphy made another pitch for the levy in his Jan. 14 State of the State speech and is likely to revisit the issue in his upcoming is budget address.
Murphy promised to legalize adult recreational use of marijuana within his first hundred days in office. But two years into his term that goal remains elusive, even though legislative leaders share it. But they conceded shortly before Thanksgiving that they did not have the votes in the state Senate to pass a legalizing measure. A month later, both houses agreed to put the question before voters in the 2020 general election.
Nonetheless, lawmakers tried to pass a stop-gap measure decriminalizing marijuana possession. That proposal would set up a process for removing certain marijuana offenses from one’s criminal record, while possession remains a criminal offense. An accompanying decriminalization bill, backed by black and Latino legislative caucuses, would have ameliorated the paradox. But the move drew only tepid support from Murphy, Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, D-19th District.
Path to Progress
Shortly after the Assembly midterm elections, Sweeney said he would make one final push for his so-called “Path to Progress” bills, which would scale back public worker retirement and health care plans.
One proposal would cut health plans from the equivalent of a platinum level of coverage under the Affordable Care Act to a gold level of coverage. The second creates a hybrid retirement system, wherein the first $40,000 of income earns pension benefits, while the rest would be eligible for a 401k-style plan.
Sweeney has argued that the proposals could save the state tens of billions of dollars in the coming decades, savings he and other advocates say are necessary to reduce New Jersey’s unfunded pension liability. That exposure has risen to upwards of $100 billion.
Murphy, whose campaign was boosted by New Jersey Education Association, opposes the measures. Members of the state’s largest teachers union constitute one of the most prominent groups of workers that would be affected by the proposals. Coughlin, whose campaign also received the NJEA’s financial backing, has offered his own health care savings plans. The stalemate will persist into the new session.
Although the Legislature sent Murphy a flurry of bills meant to fight worker misclassification, they were unsuccessful in passing one measure that would have reclassified tens of thousands of freelance workers – at companies such as Uber, Lyft and DoorDash – as regular employees.
Proponents argue that regular employees are often improperly classified by business owners as independent contractors so employers can avoid employment taxes and other worker protections. But many freelancers objected to the bill, worried that it would force them out of their positions and into inflexible and potentially lower-paying jobs. Sweeney pulled the bill in January.