The period of time between Election Day in early November, and when a new Governor or new legislators take the oath of office in January is often fraught with many twists and turns. In the middle of lots of holiday festivities, there's a rush to try to get stuff done.
Congress in 1933, passed the 20th Amendment to the Constitution, as President Hoover was leaving the White House, and newly elected President-Elect Franklin Roosevelt waited to take the reins of power. Hence, Number 20 is sometimes known as the Lame Duck Amendment.
This is the same in Trenton this time of year: Marijuana legalization. Drivers licenses for undocumented immigrants. Corporate tax incentives. Vaping ban. Dark money limits. These are just some of the issues that the New Jersey State Legislature will try to deal with, in a few short weeks, when they had almost two years to Git-R-Done and failed.
What should the NJ State Legislature make a priority in the Lame-Duck session as they close out 2019 in Trenton?
There’s an often-asked question specific to lame-duck sessions: If the new law is that good, why did it have to wait until after the election?
The good news is Governors and Legislatures use lame-duck sessions to get things done quickly. The bad news is the legislative rush, not to mention the public’s lack of attention due to the busy holiday season, can result in misguided, ill-timed laws that are just plain bad. At this point, this year’s lame-duck session in New Jersey is giving every indication of being in the bad column.
Instead of trying to make New Jersey, in the Governor Phil Murphy’s words, “a progressive blue beacon” or “the California of the east coast,” why not use the lame-duck session to focus on fixing what makes our taxes and cost-of-living so high? Our broken property taxes, our broken infrastructure, our broken public pensions and our broken business climate are all crises that need immediate attention. And yet, despite the disastrous effects of these crises, the 2019 lame-duck session will focus on things like restoring voting rights to convicts who haven’t completed their sentence; issuing driver licenses to illegal immigrants; and reclassifying self-employed independent contractors and freelancers as employees. Really?
The priority of the Governor and the Legislature – in the lame-duck and all throughout the year – should be fixing those things that make New Jersey so very difficult for hard-working, everyday people. Unfortunately, 2019, including the upcoming lame-duck session, is another year in which we’ll be “kicking the can down the road.”
A “Lame-Duck” session of the legislature is a short period of time in legislative terms, on average about six weeks after subtracting the week of the League of Municipalities, Thanksgiving week and Christmas week. In those 42 days, however, a lot can happen. The question is, however, should a lot happen?
The change from the 218th Session of the Legislature to the 219th will occur with no major partisan realignment. Since the Democrats will continue to have robust majorities in both the Senate and the Assembly, change of control is not a motivating factor in any legislative activity over the next few weeks. What couldn’t get done in the 2018th can easily be picked back up in the 219th with almost identical majorities.
There are a number of high priority matters that haven’t been able to get done in the two years of the 218th Legislature, from protecting the sanctity of our elections from dark money and interference, recalibrating business incentives, to creating a statewide program to invest in our ageing water infrastructure. They are important and complicated issues.
As important as those and other issues are, we must also make sure that the desire for last-minute legislative speed doesn’t run roughshod over the legislative process; a process designed by our founding fathers to make sure there was sufficient deliberation on important matters. Speed wasn’t their concern.
The people of this state could ask the following question; “If a bill couldn’t get across the finish line in the first 23 months of a legislative session, what happened in the last month to make it suddenly better?” My experience as a legislator tells me that the answer to that question lies closer to pressure and deals than sudden epiphanies.