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New Jersey Lawmakers Gave Themselves a Raise but Failed to Pass Big Policy Bills

State lawmakers approved their own salary increases, including for future governors, and expanded the voting age to include some 17-year-olds. But they deferred a casino smoking ban, expanded family leave, book bans and more.

The state Assembly chamber at the New Jersey Statehouse in Trenton, NJ
The state Assembly chamber at the New Jersey Statehouse in Trenton. (Michael Mancuso/NJ.com)
Was this “lame duck” ... well ... pretty lame?

State lawmakers just wrapped up a two-year legislative session by passing a flurry of proposed laws during what’s known as lame duck, the often-crazy period between November’s elections and when the newly elected state Legislature were sworn in Tuesday.

It’s a usually consequential timeframe when often-controversial legislation is pushed through because some lawmakers are on their way out and others aren’t as worried about possible blowback in an upcoming election.

But the joke around the Statehouse in Trenton in recent days was that this year’s lame duck was pretty much a quiet quack.

Big plans to ban smoking in casinos, expand paid family leave, and overhaul affordable housing, public records law, and liquor license regulations fell by the wayside — though the Democratic-controlled state Senate and Assembly did approve pay raises for themselves, the next governor, and other public officials over the objection of Republicans.

Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat, now has until Jan. 16 to sign the measures that did pass into law or veto them.

Anything that didn’t advance isn’t necessarily dead, but it would need to be reintroduced in the new legislative session, which began Tuesday as the 221st edition of the New Jersey Legislature was sworn in. Passing tough legislation might actually be easier for Democrats in the new session because their majority grew by six seats in the Assembly in last year’s elections.

Here’s a look at what didn’t and did happen in the last few weeks:

What Didn’t Happen



Casino Smoking Ban

New Jersey banned smoking inside most indoor public places in 2006, but casinos were allowed to keep smoking sections. For years, lawmakers and some casino employees have aimed to change that, fearing for their health. And they appeared to be on the verge of victory, with more than half the Legislature signed on to the plan.

But some lawmakers suddenly began backing off the bill last month, citing concerns from the casino industry about a loss in customers and revenue and seeking a compromise instead. Without enough votes for it to pass now, top sponsors said they will try again in the new session.

Affordable Housing

There have been fierce debates for decades over the complex system New Jersey uses to regulation the construction of affordable housing for lower-income residents, and the state is facing a shortage of units. So Democratic leaders introduced a new plan to overhaul the process

But while housing advocates were on board with the measure (A4), municipalities tasked with meeting housing quotes complained it all was being rushed and questions remained unanswered. In the end, leaders punted the discussion to the new session.

Murphy pitched reviving the affordable housing plan to the new Legislature during his State of the State address on Tuesday.

OPRA

There had been talk for months about making changes to New Jersey’s Open Public Records Act (OPRA), which news reporters, attorneys, and local gadflies use to obtain government documents — some of which officials may want to keep secret.

Lawmakers say a main goal is to curtail provisions that allow companies to use the 20-year-old law to mine government data for residents’ info. But advocates were worried about lawmakers sneaking in more far-reaching provisions that would further erode government transparency and accountability.

No plan, however, surfaced in lame duck. It’s unclear what happens next.

Major Liquor License Reform

A year ago, Murphy unveiled a vast plan to overhaul New Jersey’s decades-old liquor license laws, which regulate how many restaurants can serve alcohol. The caps on licenses are considered some of the strictest in the nation and critics say they have hampered the industry by limiting availability and driving up the price.

But lawmakers resisted Murphy’s broad reform ideas, saying it could cause current license holders to sharply lose the value of the licenses they bought for big bucks.

In the end, Murphy and lawmakers agreed to a deal (S4265) to narrowly increase the availability of licenses. But it falls far short of the governor’s original goals. It also would lift controversial restrictions on craft breweries.

Murphy said he hopes this is the first step to a larger revamp, though Senate President Nick Scutari, D- Union, suggested that’s unlikely.

Expanded Paid Family Leave

The state Assembly passed a bill (A5166) that would expand the availability of job-protected family leave benefits to employees of smaller companies in the state. Currently, only workers at businesses with 30 or more employees can take leave without the risk of losing their job.

But the state Senate didn’t vote on the measure, with Scutari voicing concern about how this could hurt very small businesses. It’s unclear if and when it would be revived.

Ban on Book Bans

With censorship on the rise, some Democrats introduced a proposal (S3907) that would “ban” book bans — specifically prohibiting schools and libraries in the state from pulling books from their shelves, with those who do risking financial penalties.

But there were constitutional concerns about the measure and talks about overhauling it to make it more palatable. So far, it hasn’t gone anywhere.

Social Media Age Verification

A bill (A5750) surfaced in November that would add New Jersey to a small list of states with laws requiring people to prove their age and children to get their parents’ permission to sign up for social media platforms.

Supporters say the goal is to protect kids from the harms of social media. Detractors worry it would limit free speech and hurt LGBTQ children who find solace online. They also note that efforts in other states have hit walls in court.

Despite advancing out of committee, the measure hasn’t been scheduled for a full vote in the Senate or Assembly.

Only Some Judges Approved

Facing a crisis-level judicial shortage, the Senate confirmed 20 state Superior Court judges in recent weeks — including nine on Monday. But 11 nominees went without a confirmation and will have to be reconsidered in the new session.

The state’s vacancies on the bench are now down to 47. That, however, is still short of the 30 needed for the judiciary to run properly, according to state Supreme Court Justice Stuart Rabner, who has implored Murphy and lawmakers to speed up the approvals.

What Did Happen



Pay Raises for Officials

Maybe the most controversial legislation to make it out of lame duck is a plan to raise the taxpayer-funded salaries of several public officials, including lawmakers and future governors.

Despite objections from Republicans, the Legislature passed the Democratic-sponsored measure (S4266), which would hike members’ pay 67 percent, from $49,000 to $82,000, starting in 2026. It would be lawmakers’ first raise in 24 years.

The pay for future governors would go up 20 percent, from $175,000 to $210,000, also beginning in two years — meaning it would not affect Murphy but start with his replacement.

There would also be immediate increases for the governor’s cabinet, legislative staffers, and judges.

Supporters say the goal is to help attract talented people to public service and to encourage people who aren’t independently wealthy to become lawmakers.

Murphy is expected to sign the measure, which his office helped negotiate.

Scrutiny for Contractors

Murphy on Monday signed a law that strengthens consumer protections from unscrupulous home improvement contractors in New Jersey.

The legislation (A2138) was sponsored after NJ Advance Media published “Hire at your own risk,” a report in 2021 that revealed New Jersey does little to protect consumers from contractors’ shoddy work and downright fraud.

While at least 32 states require proof of training, experience and knowledge of a state’s business law to get a license to work on someone’s home, New Jersey only required contractors to have a liability insurance policy and pay a $110 fee to get a Home Improvement Contractor (HIC) registration.

The law creates the New Jersey State Board of Home Improvement and Home Elevation Contractors, to license home improvement and home elevation contractors.

Underage Drinking Penalties

Murphy on Monday rejected a bill (A5610) that would have imposed a $50 fine on minors caught by police with alcohol in New Jersey.

Instead, the governor effectively rewrote it — issuing what is called a conditional veto — by removing the fine. But he kept the rest of the measure’s language that reduced the likelihood police officers stopping minors of color with alcohol or marijuana could be charged with violating their civil rights.

Social justice advocates urged lawmakers to eliminate the $50 fine because it would unnecessarily burden low-income families and thrust young people of color into the criminal justice system.

Lawmakers quickly adopted Murphy’s version hours later.

Cannabis Ethics Change

The Legislature passed a measure (S4268) sponsored by Scutari, the Senate president, that would potentially help the vice chair of New Jersey’s State Democratic Committee to stay within the cannabis industry.

Peg Schaffer, the Democratic State Committee vice chair, recently took on a board position at the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority. She is the president and managing principal of a law firm. But Schaffer’s job at the Authority holds the risk of running afoul of the state’s conflict of interest laws when it comes to representing cannabis applicants.

This measure would change that, allowing “special” state officials — who do not receive compensation — to still do business in the cannabis industry, as long as their post does not intersect with the industry.

Expanded School Lunches

The state is on pace to once again expand free school breakfast and lunch, this time to an additional 51,000 students, under a bill (A5684) the Legislature approved.

Sponsors say this is one step on an eventual goal to the state offering universal free meals to students.

17-Year-Olds Voting

New Jersey expanded its voting age to allow some 17-year-olds to vote in primary elections starting in 2026, thanks to a law Murphy signed.

The measure (A3690) will permit registered voters in the state who turn 18 by the general election to cast primary ballots — a proposal Murphy’s Republican predecessor, Chris Christie, once vetoed.

Grief Lessons

Starting next academic year, school districts across the state will be required to teach students lessons in grief and loss, under a law (S3330) Murphy approved.

Domestic Workers Bill of Rights

New Jersey would become the 11th state with a law giving domestic workers the same basic labor protections as other employees, under a measure (S723) lawmakers passed.

Advocates have sought the move for nearly five years. It would benefit more than 50,000 workers in the state.

It’s also one of the last bills sponsored by state Sen. Richard Codey, D- Essex, who is retiring Tuesday after 50 years in the Legislature, a tenure that makes him the longest-serving lawmakers in New Jersey history.

Crisis Response Teams

Inspired by police-involved shootings, a bill approved by the Legislature would appropriate $12 million over three years to support a state pilot program to give grants to certain municipalities and community organizations to operate community crisis response teams.

Emily Schwartz, senior counsel in the Criminal Justice Reform Program at the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, said “public safety extends beyond policing” and called this measure (A5326) a “crucial step towards real public safety in New Jersey.”

But Henal Patel, law and policy director at the institute said, voiced disappointment lawmakers were not “bolder on racial and social justice issues this session” and hope they will “govern with more purpose this coming session.”

Language Translations

One of the nation’s most diverse states, New Jersey is on the verge of requiring state documents and services be translated into 15 different languages, under a measure (S2459) passed by lawmakers.

Doula Guidelines

The Legislature passed a bill (A5739) that would require hospitals in the state to have transparent guidelines in place for doulas supporting pregnant women during labor and birth.

New Jersey has historically had one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the nation. In recent years, First Lady Tammy Murphy and lawmakers have tried to alleviate the high death rate. Having a doula can help improve a woman’s birth experience, research has shown.

This measure was pushed by Tammy Murphy around the time she announced she is running for indicted U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez’s U.S Senate seat this year.

Community Solar

Murphy signed a law (A4782) creating the Community Solar Energy Program in New Jersey, which will allow renters and homeowners to receive between 15 percent and 20 percent in savings each month on their electric bills by tapping into solar power even if they can’t put panels on their homes.

Cancelling Gym Fees Online

Gyms in New Jersey that allow customers to sign up for subscriptions online will now have to offer an online cancelation option, under a law (A3892) Murphy approved.

Traffic Proposals

Lawmakers improved a pair of traffic-related bills, that would modify the New Jersey’s “Move Over” law to help drivers with vehicles that break down on highways in the state (A5391) and help toll agencies that lost $117 million to toll evaders (A5799).


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