There’s Work to be Done: Legislation in 2016

A few things old, a few things new on our legislative to-do list.

The holidays are behind us, and it’s time for everyone to get to work on their goals for the new year. That includes our elected officials on State Street in Trenton. In 2012, I offered in this space a to-do list for our Statehouse leaders. Four years later, many of those tasks still haven’t been addressed. Before I list the new items for the 2016 to-do list, let’s revisit some of the lingering 2012 goals.

Increase New Jersey’s gas tax. In an effort to shore up the state’s Transportation Trust Fund, Governor Chris Christie and the Legislature need to finally ask motorists to pay a few more cents at the pump to improve our crumbling roads and bridges.

End senatorial courtesy. Only in New Jersey can a state senator block the appointment of a judge or a cabinet member who happens to live in the senator’s county—even if there is no legitimate reason to do so. Ending this so-called courtesy has never been seriously discussed or debated.

Pass the millionaire’s tax. Yes, I’m worried about wealthy folks leaving the state, but everyone else is getting whacked, and middle-class families continue to get squeezed with higher property taxes.

Consolidate services. Back in 2012, I said Statehouse leaders needed to craft policies that would force smaller New Jersey towns to merge, consolidate or share services. Not a lot of progress has been made in that area.

Fortunately, there has been progress on at least two fronts. The Legislature addressed the need for increased funding for higher education in 2012 with passage of the Building Our Future Bond Act. On the other hand, it took the U.S. Supreme Court to move the ball on marriage equality. Now, new items on the to-do list:

Pension reform. The pension crisis is worse than ever. The governor and the Democrats in Trenton pounded their chests in 2011 when legislation was passed on public-employee pension reform. But while public employees were asked for major givebacks and agreed to major compromises, the state never kicked into the pension fund to the degree promised. Christie and other Republicans say the money is not there. They are probably right, but public employees say they won’t give back any more. Additional revenue and cuts elsewhere are needed to meet the state’s pension obligations—which brings us back to an earlier task: Pass the millionaire’s tax.

Port Authority reform. Post Bridgegate, it is critical that Trenton passes legislation that mandates changes and achieves greater transparency at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the bistate agency that, among other things, oversees our common bridges and tunnels. It’s a significant challenge. Any reforms in New Jersey would have to be matched by New York State. And the views of Christie and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo differ from many of their colleagues in their respective legislatures.

School testing. Our Statehouse leaders need to take a long look at standardized tests in our public schools. Raising academic standards for all students is important, but many parents and teachers are legitimately concerned about the number of hours students and teachers are spending on prepping for the PARCC and other standardized tests. How much is enough? That question needs to be resolved on the state level, not by individual school districts.

Homeland security. Wouldn’t it be great if Democrats and Republicans in Trenton did the right thing on the Syrian refugee crisis?  Of course, I’m concerned about the possibility of a terrorist sneaking into our country, but immigration policy should not be tied to politics and world events. Instead, there should be a consistent, high standard for everyone. The policy must protect us from terrorism while preserving our history as a nation open to new immigrants and new opportunities.

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