As clock ticks, N.J. Legislature in a scramble

Posted: June 30, 2014

TRENTON - Around 4:30 p.m. Tuesday, a couple of hours before marathon budget committee sessions, the Assembly added to the agenda a new bill that would have made "Renaissance" schools in Camden eligible for tax credits and beefed up pension benefits for certain school district employees to encourage early retirement.

By 10:30 p.m., when the Senate voted on an identical bill, the tax-credit provision - sure to invite scrutiny given a potential beneficiary was a school project linked to the state's predominant Democratic power broker - had been axed.

The revised version cleared both budget committees, and the bill squeaked through the Legislature on Thursday. Just over 48 hours after it was introduced, the bill had arrived at Gov. Christie's desk.

The episode underscored the process by which certain legislative priorities jump to the front of the line in Trenton, sometimes without much public input.

That process accelerated last week, as a June 30 budget deadline added urgency to resolve negotiations and pass legislation that might otherwise languish for months.

It's not new. Lawmakers, lobbyists, and political observers say the last week of the fiscal year - and lame-duck session in January - has been marked by deal-making and legislative scrambling for as long as anyone can remember.

Yet it shows how even as the budget negotiations have become a scripted process - Democrats stick up for the working class, Christie vetoes their tax hikes, everyone wins - a wild card still remains, with the clock ticking.

At a town-hall-style event in Haddon Heights last week, Christie likened the rush of late-June legislative activity to finals week in college - "if you weren't the most diligent student in the world."

"You knew finals would come . . . then all of a sudden, it would be two or three days before finals, and the whole plan had gone to hell in a handbasket," Christie said. "Now you're staying up all night jamming and cramming to get everything in your head. . . . That's what it's like here in the Legislature."

While it may appear last-minute, some say the legislative crunch is the product of necessary months-long negotiations among interested parties. And with lawmakers gathered in Trenton and a deadline approaching, the atmosphere is conducive to action - helping bills clear their final hurdles.

Others think the game stinks.

"I received a binder yesterday, double-sided pages, 500-plus pages of documents," Assemblywoman Holly Schepisi (R., Bergen) said in an interview Thursday after she voted on alimony legislation she saw for the first time that morning.

"I'm a speed reader," she said. "I was up until probably 1:30 this morning attempting to go through the bills, go through the bill comments, reading the budget. Because otherwise, what the hell are we voting on?"

The Legislature's rules allow the Assembly speaker and Senate president to waive certain public notice requirements, allowing committees to vote on bills that were not previously posted to the agenda.

That's what happened Tuesday with the Renaissance school bill. The Assembly communications office promptly notified reporters at 4:38 p.m. that the bill had been added to the agenda, though it was not yet available online for the greater public to review.

In its initial version, the legislation would have made the schools - district-charter hybrids - eligible for tax credits. The KIPP Cooper Norcross Academy, Camden's only Renaissance school, stood to benefit, as did several others slated to open, pending state approval. One of KIPP's key backers is George E. Norcross III, the influential Democrat.

The bill's sponsor, Assemblyman Troy Singleton (D., Burlington), said some legislators were apprehensive about the tax-credit provision.

Sen. Jennifer Beck (R., Monmouth), who sits on the Senate Budget Committee, said agendas were not available during Tuesday's meeting.

She said it wasn't "completely unusual" for bills to be rushed through the Legislature. "But to me, it's not appropriate," said Beck, who voted against the early-retirement bill. "Regardless of how people are going to cast their vote, they should be able to understand what they're voting on."

It passed in the full Senate with 24 votes (three more than it needed) and in the Assembly with 42 (one more).

Other eleventh-hour bills include one during the lame-duck session in January that granted eminent-domain power to a joint board of Rutgers-Camden and Rowan University. It passed the Legislature in a week, and Christie signed it.

Not all fast-tracked bills are created equal: Despite a push to quickly pass a bill that would have allowed certain elected officials, including Camden Mayor Dana L. Redd, to reenroll in the Public Employees Retirement System, it never advanced.

(As a result of a 2007 law, Redd's pension froze when she moved from city council to the mayor's office three years later.)

Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) introduced legislation this time last year to abolish Rutgers' board of trustees, but it was so unpopular that it, too, didn't go up for a vote.

"It's not a big deal," Sweeney said of the rush in June and January. "That's what we do all the time."

The Legislature does not recess after the end of the fiscal year, but the Assembly typically leaves for the summer.

New Jersey's budget negotiations used to feature a different form of backroom dealing, in which lawmakers maneuvered money for pet projects into the budget.

That practice, known as "Christmas tree" spending, was reformed under Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine in the wake of the investigation by then-U.S. Attorney Christie that led to the 2007 indictment of State Sen. Wayne Bryant.

The Camden County Democrat was charged with steering grants to the former University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey after it gave him a job.

Legislative rules now require that lawmakers who add money to the budget put their names to the changes in the form of budget resolutions.

Sen. Richard Codey, a former governor who has served in the Statehouse for 40 years, said the process was "way better than it used to be."

"It's more transparent today than it ever was," he said.

Not so, says Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club.

Part of the impetus for changing the process was that the spending on earmarks "became so obvious," drawing media attention, Tittel said.

The Department of Community Affairs budget, for example, would include a line item for a "library" in a specified district, which enabled people to link the spending to a particular lawmaker. "It was literally in the budget," he said.

But that accounting was, in a sense, transparent, Tittel said. Although names weren't attached, the earmarks were in the budget, he said. Today's deal-making isn't apparent to the public.

"Sometimes reform isn't really reform," he said.



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