This story originally appeared on NJ Spotlight.
New Jersey’s Democratic-led Legislature on Monday started the last session of 2021 with more than 250 measures on the agenda, but Republicans made certain things weren’t going to happen either quickly or smoothly in the Assembly.
For bill after bill, a small number of Republican Assembly members used their time to either object to the Democrats’ pandemic-driven rules for accessing the State House or to praise a measure, in all cases slowing the progress on even the most minor of bills.
Some work still did get done, including the approval of new gun control legislation and agreement with some conditional vetoes issued by Gov. Phil Murphy on matters ranging from police review of body-worn camera footage to insurance coverage of telemedicine visits.
However, a number of gun control and other measures were not considered. Several other Democratic priorities, such as a measure codifying abortion rights into law, were not scheduled for a vote at all, as negotiations continued behind the scenes over a bill even some Democratic members think goes too far.
Source of drama
But the biggest news of the day may have been the theatrics and politicking in the Assembly that accompanied nearly every bill.
The Senate finished its business in less than two hours, with most members present and just a few minutes of complaints voiced by Republicans. In the Assembly, however, a few of the 20 Republicans who participated in the session by telephone rather than follow the rule that requires all those entering the state complex to either show a vaccination card or take a rapid COVID-19 test, first protested the rule and then spoke on nearly every bill up for a vote, even those that they supported and would normally move quickly.
At one point more than four hours into the session that was still proceeding at 9 p.m., Assemblyman Erik Peterson (R-Hunterdon), who was probably the most vocal member, began speaking about a bill by essentially reading its summary. Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-Middlesex) voiced what had been clear since the start of the voting around 1 p.m.: “You’re trying to delay the process, but go ahead, you’re doing a fine job.”
Republicans had filed a suit against the State House access rule earlier this month and were able to get past State Police and security and attend a Dec. 2 session. Coughlin called it a “colossal failure of security.”
This time, State Police did not allow them in if they did not comply with the vaccine or testing mandate. Republicans have lost two legal cases — including one filed Monday — seeking to block the rule at least temporarily, with a court date set for April 11 for a full hearing. A number of more moderate Republicans, including the minority leader Jon Bramnick (R-Union) did comply with the rule and attended the session in person.
The session got testier as it continued into the evening, with Democrats in the chamber and Republicans on the phone saying they couldn’t hear one another and contending that at least some Democrats had left the Assembly chamber and that others were casting votes for them. A few Democrats attended by phone. Coughlin said all votes were being cast properly.
This was the last session of the year, but not of this Legislature. Both houses have scheduled final voting sessions for Jan. 10.
These are some of the significant actions taken Monday:
The Senate passed by a vote of 30-6 a bill that requires members of a victim’s family or household be notified when firearms are returned to people charged with domestic violence or are under an extreme risk protection order (A-3687). Already passed by the Assembly, that measure is now on Murphy’s desk.
The Assembly passed, 47 to 26, a measure (A-3686) that seeks to close a loophole in the state’s gun registration system by requiring new residents, when they move to New Jersey, to register firearms that they legally obtained in another state. Assemblywoman Mila Jasey (D-Essex), one of the sponsors, called the measure “commonsense.” The bill now heads to the Senate. The Assembly also passed a resolution (AR-277) supporting Murphy’s call for convening the States for Gun Safety Summit, which was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Measures not considered
The Assembly did not consider other measures on its agenda, including bills that would regulate the sale of ammunition, make possession of a gun with a caliber of 50 or higher illegal unless already owned and registered, rules for the safe storage of firearms and the micro-stamping of semi-automatic handguns. Coughlin issued a statement affirming his commitment to have the Assembly pass the full gun safety package.
“Working to build consensus, we are hopeful that the Senate will join us in the fight to make New Jersey families safer by advancing this important package,” he said. “In the interim, we are passing bills that have the support of both legislative houses. These bills mark a notable step forward … Our goal is to continue leading the nation on fair and robust commonsense gun safety laws. I intend to consider re-posting a comprehensive package in January and hope to get these to the governor’s desk in short order.”
Some that got through
By a vote of 33-5, the Senate concurred with Murphy’s conditional veto of a bill (S-2953) that would expand inmate reentry assistance and benefits, including for those leaving county jails. It agreed with the governor’s recommended changes to A-5905, which would create a program within the state Department of Community Affairs to help renters get assistance and prevent evictions. The Senate also concurred with Murphy’s conditional veto of S-2559, which would require health insurers and Medicaid to cover telemedicine and telehealth services and appropriate $5 million.
The Senate passed, 35 to 4, a bill (S-3416) codifying into law same-sex marriages in the state. These have been allowed under judicial decisions since 2013 in New Jersey, and 2015 nationally. The Assembly was supposed to vote on the measure too but had not done so as of 9:15 p.m. The Senate also approved, 39-0, but the Assembly had not considered by 9:15 p.m., a measure (S-4274) giving an additional $500,000 each to the commissions that are redrawing the state’s congressional and legislative boundaries to reflect the 2020 U.S. census population counts.
Both houses passed without opposition a measure (A-5727) which would set some rules for school security drills meant to reduce the trauma to students taking part in such drills. These include requiring districts to use age-appropriate messaging at the end of a drill to make it clear no current danger exists and prohibiting the use of fake blood, real or faux firearms or the simulation of gunshots or explosions. That measure is now on Murphy’s desk.
“Security drills do not have to mimic many students’ biggest fear in order to be effective,” said Assemblyman Louis Greenwald (D-Camden), a sponsor of the bill. “We can make sure our students know what to do during real security events by providing them with proper resources and using less-intense security drills instead of relying on damaging scare tactics.”