Year-end rush

The League of Municipalities conference set the stage for next month and a half of NJ politics

The New Jersey League of Municipalities conference served as perhaps the most prominent indicator about how politics would play out for the remainder of lame duck session in Trenton.

Gov. Phil Murphy speaks at the New Jersey League of Municipalities conference in Atlantic City on Nov. 21, 2019.

Gov. Phil Murphy speaks at the New Jersey League of Municipalities conference in Atlantic City on Nov. 21, 2019. – DANIEL J. MUNOZ

By the time the majority of the 15,000 attendees left the three-day conference on Nov. 21 after a luncheon speech by Gov. Phil Murphy, hundreds of panels and crowded parties at hotels across Atlantic City, they walked away with a pretty good idea of what to expect before the governor’s Jan. 14, 2020 State of the State Address.

Given the rift between Gov. Phil Murphy and Senate President Stephen Sweeney, the South Jersey Democrat’s decisions framed many of the conversations among conference attendees. And the two pols carried on their own spirited debate through the media. The governor tried to push back on Sweeney’s agenda and promote his own, even though a sore throat made his voice barely audible at times.

Marijuana on the ballot

Voters will decide in the 2020 general election whether to legalize marijuana and whether the Cannabis Regulatory Commission – which by then will be overseeing the state’s medical marijuana market – will regulate the recreational sector.

“I’m not very comfortable with that. I think the Legislature should do its job and let the vote fall where it falls,” said Assemblyman Joe Danielsen, D-17th District, one of the main sponsors of the cannabis legalization bill in the lower house, at a Nov. 20 morning panel on marijuana.

Inside one of the cannabis flowering rooms at PharmaCann in Montgomery, N.Y. - AARON HOUSTON

Inside one of the cannabis flowering rooms at PharmaCann in Montgomery, N.Y. – AARON HOUSTON

“The people of New Jersey deserve to see the work we put together, the details … and they deserve to see how their legislators feel on the bill,” Danielsen added.

The $42 an ounce flat tax, which Murphy wanted and which Sweeney said he “didn’t like from the beginning,” was taken out, and instead only the 6.625 percent sales tax would be collected.

“We’re going to have one of the lowest tax rates, just like with sports betting. We’re doing phenomenally with sports betting because we have the lowest tax rates,” Sweeney said early Wednesday afternoon.

But cannabis industry leaders said they are worried about the two-page resolution Sweeney and Sen. Nicholas Scutari, D-22nd District, released on Nov. 18. Lawmakers have until Dec. 31 to approve the measure.

Murphy, admitting he was “disappointed,” nonetheless agreed that the lame duck talks should center on legislation setting up a process for the expungement of certain low-level cannabis offenses from criminal records. He later backed a legislative move toward decriminalization.

“We are very seriously looking at that and talking to the legislative leadership,” Murphy said Thursday morning.

The measure has been held up in the state Senate, after Murphy sent the bill back to lawmakers in August. Sweeney has offered assurances that it would be approved at the next Senate voting session – scheduled for Dec. 16 – with only minor, technical changes to language in the bill.

Another measure could appear as a ballot question, backed by Sweeney: whether the state should make deep cuts to the public worker pension and health care plans.

One proposal would cut public worker 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 is applied to pensions, and the rest to a 401k-style plan.

If Murphy blocks these proposals, then the ballot question would be a way to bypass the governor entirely.

The governor decried what he said are “race to the bottom health care options,” suggesting that the best way to cut costs is to renegotiate health plans with public workers.

“We must prove that we can provide them the high-quality care they deserve – and which they’ve earned – at a better price. We can save them, and other taxpayers, money. And, we are,” the governor said in his prepared remarks at the Nov. 21 luncheon.

Sue Altman of New Jersey Working Families is removed from the Seneate Select Committee on Economic Growth Strategies in Trenton, Monday Nov. 18, 2019. – AARON HOUSTON

The removal of Sue Altman, who heads the progressive group New Jersey Working Families, from a legislative hearing held before the League gathered in Atlantic City, was still a topic of conversation at the conference. The hearing included an appearance by South Jersey political powerbroker George Norcross, who has been at the center of a nearly year-long controversy over New Jersey’s tax breaks.

Altman – perhaps the most vocal critic of Norcross – alleges that she was specifically targeted, given that committee chair Sen. Bob Smith, D-17th District, directed police to remove the back row and instead made a dash for Altman, who was much closer to the front of the room.

But many lawmakers, including Smith and Norcross-ally Sweeney, argued that Altman went into the hearing with the intention of being arrested and according to the senate president “got the attention she wanted.”

Moreover, they blamed the state police and the Attorney General’s Office, rather than any decisions Smith made.

“You need to talk to the state police [on] why they chose to remove her,” Sweeney said. “Bob Smith did not direct the state police to remove her.”

Former governor and state Sen. Dick Codey, D-27th District, Murphy’s biggest ally in the Legislature, criticized the committee as having been put together solely to “embarrass the governor,” rather than the stated goal of hashing out a new set of incentives, something lawmakers have strongly denied.

Daniel J. Munoz
Daniel Munoz covers politics and state government for NJBIZ. You can contact him at dmunoz@njbiz.com.

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