In Trenton, legislation redux

Posted: February 01, 2014

TRENTON At the Statehouse, if at first you don't succeed, try introducing the bill again.

Gov. Christie may have shot down hundreds of bills last session, but that didn't stop lawmakers from moving forward Thursday with some of the same proposals. Bills brought back include one championed by the state's top elected Democrat to form a commission on college affordability - legislation the governor opposed as redundant - and a measure to ban pig gestation crates, which are decried by animal rights groups as inhumane.

It remains unclear how prevalent the crates are in New Jersey, but the bill's sponsor, Sen. Raymond J. Lesniak (D., Union), said Thursday that the Republican governor has less of a reason now to oppose it.

"I believe we had enough votes for the override; we just ran out of time," Lesniak said. Republicans, who supported the bill initially would not vote to override the governor in November.

"Hopefully this time we won't even have to go that far, and the governor, with his presidential aspirations on life support, will do the right thing this time for New Jersey," Lesniak said.

Lesniak has accused Christie of vetoing the bill out of concern for his standing in Iowa, home to many pork producers as well as the first presidential caucus. The bill was opposed last session by the National Pork Producers Council and the New Jersey Farm Bureau.

Christie has said state agriculture officials have developed humane standards for livestock.

Lesniak's bill, which he said was "basically" the same as the version Christie vetoed, cleared the Senate Economic Growth committee Thursday.

Also undeterred by the governor's veto pen was Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester), who reintroduced a bill Christie vetoed this month to create a college affordability study commission.

Christie said state officials were already addressing the issues to be studied by the commission. Sweeney disagreed.

"The governor says, we don't need to do this, the Department of Higher Education already does it. We have the second-highest public education costs in the nation," Sweeney said this week. "So if you're telling me you're satisfied with that, something's wrong."

Under the bill, a commission would study several options for lessening college expenses, including a "Pay It Forward" program that would replace the current tuition system and have graduates pay back a percentage of their income for a certain number of years.

Sweeney said students are "drowning in debt." Donna Chiera, president of the American Federation of Teachers New Jersey, said the bill deserved a second hearing.

Higher education officials have "released no relevant information nor shown any indication of addressing this major challenge for New Jersey students," she said in a statement.

The bill was advanced Thursday by the Higher Education Committee.

Also moved forward was a version of an economic incentives bill that was introduced last session following the passage of the sweeping Economic Opportunity Act but failed to advance.

The new bill, also sponsored by Lesniak, retained some of the original provisions, exempting developers receiving tax credits to build housing in urban areas from an affordable housing set-aside requirement, and including $200 million in tax credits for the redevelopment of existing affordable housing projects.

Struck from the bill was a provision that would have resurrected and expanded the state's film tax credit program, which has allotted its money through its expiration in 2015.

Lesniak said he left the film credits out "because that's something the governor does not support. He's made it clear he doesn't support it." The senator said he would reintroduce the proposal separately, working to build support in the coming months.

One new bill advanced Thursday would require local board approval to close schools in districts controlled by the state. That measure, sponsored by Sens. Ron Rice (D., Essex) and Shirley Turner (D., Mercer), was prompted by a controversial plan to reorganize the Newark School District.

"There is a lot of frustration and fear over the school plan that was recently put forward in Newark, particularly concerning the neighborhood schools that are slated for closure," Rice said in a statement. "The representatives of the community, who serve on the school board, should be involved in the decision-making process."

The Camden School District also is under state control - an initiative of Christie's last year.

609-989-8990 @maddiehanna

Inquirer staff writer Jonathan Lai contributed to this article.

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