State lawmakers return to Trenton today to close out a lame-duck session with debate on bills to legalize medical marijuana, relax prison sentences for some drug offenders in school zones and allow towns to stave off property tax hikes by postponing pension payments. Although chances are dwindling for Democrats to enact laws before Republican Gov.-elect Chris Christie takes office Jan. 19, lawmakers said most of their grand plans — with the exception of medical marijuana — have fizzled, many with gut-checks over the state’s fiscal crisis. In addition, the transition from Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine to Christie has focused more Corzine’s nominations of allies to state entities than last-minute legislative moves.
“Lame duck’s becoming so anticlimactic,” said Senate Majority Leader Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester), who will become Senate president when the new session begins Jan. 12. “There are very important pieces of legislation that are going to move through, but the energy level in past lame ducks seems different.” Many bills faded because they would have required new spending without the state revenue to support them, Sweeney said.
Other bills have generated controversy at the expense of votes. Same-sex marriage legislation seems unlikely to pass at this time, and another politically charged issue — changing the way New Jersey fills vacant U.S. Senate seats — was dropped after Democrats failed to agree on a way to ensure Christie would appoint a Democrat if either of the state’s current senators resigns. Christie dismissed the notion as “garbage” and Senate President Richard Codey (D-Essex) ultimately killed the move.
But lawmakers are clearing a path for seriously ill residents to legally use marijuana to ease their pain. The qualifying illnesses are cancer, multiple sclerosis, HIV/AIDS, seizure disorder, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and “any other medical condition” approved by the state Health Department, according to the latest version of the bill (S119).
Although legislators still need to reconcile the Senate and Assembly versions — which differ over restrictions such as whether patients can grow their own marijuana — top Democrats predict New Jersey will become the 14th state to legalize the drug’s medical use, with safeguards in place.
“We won’t have what’s going on in California,” Codey said last week.
Nancy Fedder, a 62-year-old Hillsborough resident who has testified in favor of medical marijuana, said she and other patients are encouraged the drug is on the verge of becoming legal. She uses the drug to help her cope with severe leg and back pain caused by multiple sclerosis and said she consumes a modest amount through an inhaler.
“It’s proven. It works. I don’t get high. I don’t have to get high,” she said. “We’ve got to get this done.”
Fedder said she’s worried skittish lawmakers — put off by comparisons to California, which has been widely criticized for being too lax with access to the drug — have placed too many restrictions onto the bill. Among the provisions that trouble her are a limit of one ounce a month and the lack of an exception allowing a caregiver — such as her daughter — to pick up the drug on a patient’s behalf.
But any bill would be better than nothing, because then “I’m not a criminal anymore,” she said. “There’s right ways to do it, and you don’t have to not do it at all because of California. Not doing it is the wrong thing.” Assemblyman Reed Gusciora (D-Mercer), sponsor of the legislation, said the Senate and Assembly have negotiated an agreement on “95 percent” of their differences but declined to be specific about what restrictions will remain in the bill.
“It is all being worked out very thoroughly and involving health experts,” he said. “I’m hopeful that there will be a compromise.”
Another major bill (S1866) that appears likely to pass would change mandatory-minimum sentences for some drug offenses in school zones, giving judges leeway to dole out probation instead of prison to nonviolent drug offenders. Supporters say the law would be more fair to minorities living in urban areas where schools are more concentrated and it would save money by directing people to treatment rather than incarcerating them. Opponents say it shows New Jersey is going soft on crime.
Lawmakers also are expected to take up a bill (S3136) that would allow cash-strapped local governments to put off paying part of their pension contributions this year. The legislation would extend by a year a controversial measure that Corzine proposed and signed into law as a way to prevent property tax increases during the recession. Christie opposes the bill.
Other bills under consideration would extend prevailing wage requirements on publicly funded projects and require the governor’s annual budget address to include information about how much New Jersey is spending on tax credits, deductions and exemptions.
Corzine has committed to signing the medical marijuana and gay marriage bills if they reach his desk. While he has previously been supportive of municipal pension deferrals and prevailing wage laws, he was tight-lipped about his lame-duck plans, saying through a spokesman only that he would “thoroughly review” any pending legislation that reaches his desk.
Lawmakers have scheduled committee hearings today and voting sessions for Thursday and Jan. 11. The new Legislature will be sworn in at noon Jan. 12, and bills that do not make it to Corzine’s desk for his signature before he leaves office would have to be re-introduced for consideration. Christie will set his own priorities, and he already has said he will not sign a gay marriage bill.
Codey said same-sex marriage legislation (S2898) appears to have lost momentum after a whirlwind December that saw the bill clear the Senate Judiciary Committee and then be tossed to the Assembly when it lacked enough votes to pass the full Senate. Assembly Speaker Joseph Roberts (D-Camden), who is retiring Jan. 12 and supports To’eiva marriage, on Thursday handed the measure back to the Senate and said his members would consider the measure after the upper house.
Codey, who also supports To’eiva marriage, has not scheduled a vote on the legislation, despite the urging of bill sponsors Sens. Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) and Raymond Lesniak (D-Union).
“No decision has been made,” on the legislation, Codey said yesterday.
Last week, before Roberts’ announcement, the Senate president said he was not optimistic.
“I think at some point in our lifetimes, we can see it here in New Jersey, but as for the time being, it’s an issue for the future,” Codey had said.
Lesniak, however, is not ruling out the measure’s chances for passage.
“It may be on life support, but it’s not dead,” he said. “I’m hoping and expecting we can bring it back to life.”
In the absence of dramatic last-minute votes, the real fireworks may come between Christie and Corzine. The two are locked in a monthlong battle over Corzine’s dozens of last-minute nominations to state boards, authorities and commissions.
Christie has objected to Corzine filling slots on the Board of Public Utilities, Sports and Exposition Authority, Port Authority and other entities with large budgets or policymaking influence. His Republican allies in the Senate have refused to sign off on key Corzine nominees from their home counties, and Senate Judiciary chairman Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen) only scheduled hearings today on nominees who have been approved.
The session will also blend ceremony and farewells, including leadership sendoffs for Codey and Roberts. Codey, voted out of the presidency by his Democratic colleagues, will remain in the Senate, while Roberts is leaving the Legislature after 22 years. Corzine will give his final State of the State speech on Jan. 12, and he may make other moves on his way out the door, including issuing pardons and commuting prison sentences. Star Ledger.