During the final months of 2021, lawmakers rushed through hundreds of pieces of legislation affecting a variety of businesses and industries. But some significant bills never made it to Gov. Phil Murphy’s desk—several of which could have helped businesses, while others may have slowed the COVID-19 recovery, according to Michael Egenton, executive vice president of government relations at the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce.
For example, the Chamber has called on the state to spend more money from its $6.4 billion of relief under the American Rescue Plan. Uses could range from refilling the state unemployment fund and directing more money to businesses so that they can ride out the omicron variant. “People out there still need help and that translates to … aid and anything the governor can do with the ARP money for those folks,” Egenton said.
A number of other bills stalled in the statehouse. Sponsors must introduce these measures and start over from the beginning. Many have been prefiled in the Assembly or Senate. Here’s a breakdown of the most prominent bills.
Former Senate President Stephen Sweeney pursued a measure to control what he and environmentalists dubbed “warehouse sprawl” across the Garden State’s suburbs, rural stretches and environmentally protected acreage.
The pandemic fueled an explosion in online shopping and e-commerce, which in turn drove up the demand for warehouses across New Jersey given its proximity to the busy Port of Newark. But residents near these warehouses worry about the effects on quality of life while environmental groups argue that the structures could harm local ecosystems.
A bill introduced last April would have set up a state board and provided greater input from all affected municipalities before any warehouse proposal could move forward.
Another bill would have prohibited farmland from being redeveloped into warehouses, but that proposal also failed to pass both houses.
The sponsors all lost their elections: Sweeney and fellow South Jersey state Sen. Dawn Addiego, as well as former state Assemblyman Eric Houghtaling. Sweeney’s successor – Sen. Nicholas Scutari, D-22nd District, could not be reached. The bills have not yet been reintroduced.
Senate Bill 4133 would have prohibited the state from requiring homes and businesses to switch from oil and natural gas to electric heat.
Fossil fuel interests praised the bill as a means to avoid what they argue could be high costs for unreliable technology. These groups contend that the Murphy administration significantly underestimated the total price tag of the mandate, which could soar to tens of thousands of dollars for a homeowner.
Environmentalists criticized the bill as catering to these industries at the expense of the state’s well-being. The measure passed the state Senate on Jan. 10 but was not introduced in the lower chamber.
One main sponsor, Sen. Vin Gopal, D-11th District, said he wants to make another go in the new session, following more dialogue with environmental groups and the industries that could be the most affected by the transition to electric heating.
“I got people in my district who will be out of a job” should such a mandate be adopted, he said in a phone interview. “Our goal is to bring the Legislature into the process and bring the public into the process.”
Bayonne Medical Center
A pair of bills aimed at resolving the years-long dispute over the ownership of Bayonne Medical Center also died at the end of the session.
Hudson Regional Hospital, the current landlord, is trying to push out CarePoint, the financially stressed safety net hospital, alleging a failure to pay rent. CarePoint has teamed up with BMC Hospital LLC to increase its ownership stake in the hospital’s operations from 9.9% to 49% and argues that it is “current on all rents and other payment obligations.”
One proposal, S4191, would have slowed the state Health Department process by which a hospital tenant can be evicted, tilting the dispute in CarePoint’s favor. That bill was approved by the state Senate in December but never moved in the Assembly.
The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Sandra Cunningham, D-31st District, who represents several communities serviced by BMC, could not be reached for comment. She’s also declined to comment on the bill since its introduction during the prior voting session.
Conversely, A6221 would have slowed CarePoint’s plans to convert to a nonprofit, requiring approval from the state health department. Former state Assemblyman Nicholas Chiaravalloti, a main sponsor, said the purpose of the bill was to allow scrutiny of why CarePoint wants to make such a transition. The bill never moved out of committee.
Hiring The Disabled
Senate Bill 3809 would have created tax credits for businesses that hire workers with developmental disabilities. Proponents contended that the measure would expand career opportunities for many New Jerseyans often underrepresented in the workplace. But the measure only passed the Senate and did not move in the Assembly.
A pair of different incentives were reintroduced in the new session. A904 would provide businesses with a varying scale of tax credits for the wages they paid to disabled employees, up to $6,000, and other credits of up to $600 for transportation services for the worker along with other credits. Meanwhile, A479 provides tax breaks of up to $2,400 per qualified hire with a developmental disability.
Senate Bill 4254 would have allowed businesses with up to 50 employees to claim up to $150,000 in tax deductions for money spent to comply with several rounds of strict COVID-19 business restrictions throughout 2020.
The bill was approved in the state Senate on Jan. 10 but did not make any progress in the Assembly. It was reintroduced in the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee as S346.
Murphy vetoed a bill that would have created such a benefit for restaurants, bars, event spaces and other similar venues, citing concerns about tinkering with the state tax code in the middle of the budget year and suggested that similar relief should be included as part of budget negotiations.
After the governor’s “absolute veto,” meaning he would not reconsider the proposal, it has not been reintroduced in either house.
The governor also pocket vetoed a similar bill on the final day of his first term that would have let businesses with less than 20 employees apply for tax refunds on any sales tax they paid to “winterize their operations” amid the pandemic.
That would allow them to recoup costs for equipment such as tents, space heaters and snow and ice removal, as long as they were purchased between Sept. 1, 2020, and March 31, 2021. The measure was pre-filed on Jan. 11 in the Assembly Commerce and Economic Development Committee as A1899.
Lawmakers sought to create a statewide board that would rein in the costs of prescription drugs. The measure met resistance from the pharmaceutical industry and stalled in both chambers. Opponents warned that it would hinder job growth and investment in the pharmaceutical sector. Nonetheless, Murphy said in his State of the State address that he plans to ask lawmakers to consider his proposal to focus on a more “transparent” supply chain.”
Path To Progress
A proposal backed by Sweeney under his “Path to Progress” reforms called for an overhaul to the state pension system that would reduce public worker retirement costs. Early in lame duck session, Sweeney told reporters that he would like to get the measure approved before he left office.
Under what Sweeney first proposed, known as a hybrid pension plan, the first $40,000 of a new public worker’s retirement package would go toward a defined pension plan, while anything above that would go to a 401(k)-like retirement package.
Another lawmaker will have to carry the torch on the proposal; Sweeney’s successor, Scutari, was not available for comment, and nor was his office.
But Senate Republican Leader Steven Oroho, R-24th District, said he hopes to push through pension and health benefit cuts in the new session.
A bill introduced in late 2019 just months before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic would have tightened state laws dealing with business scheduling practices.
Advocates said the proposal would clamp down on the kinds of last-minute scheduling that advocates say typically affect lower-wage workers in the warehouse, hospitality and retail sectors and harms health and family life.
Workers might be told days in advance of their expected weekly schedules, or in some cases hours ahead of when they’re expected to show up for work, according to advocacy groups like Make the Road NJ. The practice has forced many workers to cancel family, health care, child care and other engagements, the group said.
The original bill never made it out of committee.
The proposal recently introduced in both houses as the “New Jersey Fair Workweek Act,” requires businesses with at least 250 employees to provide a worker’s schedule at least two weeks in advance.
One of the main sponsors, Assemblywoman Britnee Timberlake, D-34th District, said the bill would ensure that “a person can plan their life around their workweek.”
Business trade groups have opposed the measure. The conservative-leaning National Federal of Independent Business New Jersey chapter said the proposal was “unworkable, inflexible and expensive for small business owners” who are “struggling to cover shifts and are forced to pay out premiums for unanticipated changes.”