New Jersey’s weakened gaming industry, workforce pressures and vulnerable environment have driven legislative developments in recent months, giving interested folks plenty of pending bills to watch in 2016.
Atlantic City, the state’s only constitutionally-allowed gaming revenue resource, has suffered from casino bankruptcies, closures and competition, driving lawmakers to consider tax incentives that would boost the resort town, along with a proposal to geographically expand the market share of casinos.
Casino employees, some of whom have gone on strike in the past year, represent just one industry characterized by a labor pool that wants a better work-life balance. Lawmakers have heeded their calls with legislation that has drawn objections from a recession weary business sector still struggling to cope with ongoing economic uncertainty.
On the natural resources front, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection’s proposed changes to rules governing the state’s flood hazard areas have riled conservationists who fear the updates lessen protections and pander to developers.
Here’s a summary of critical legislation and regulation that could affect significant New Jersey State changes in 2016:
Atlantic City Fiscal Recovery Package
Pinning their hopes on reviving Atlantic City, lawmakers are continuing to push a financial incentive package spearheaded by Senate President Stephen M. Sweeney and Sen. Jim Whalen, D-Atlantic.
Three of the bills have passed both houses of the Legislature as of the Assembly’s Dec. 17 voting session and are awaiting Gov. Chris Christie’s signature. The anchor of the proposal, A3981, calls for a payment-in-lieu-of-taxes plan to stabilize the town’s fiscal health. A3984 would reallocate a casino tax that’s being used for redevelopment projects to help the city pay debt service on municipal bonds, and A3985 would drop a five-year obligation to use casino revenue for marketing purposes so those funds can be redirected to the city.
In November, Christie signed into law another part of the package, A3983, that would provide additional state money to the city’s struggling public schools, but implemented an absolute veto to A3982, that would have required casinos to provide proof they are providing “suitable” health care and retirement benefits to employees.
Constitutional Amendment to Expand Gambling
Looking beyond Atlantic City, lawmakers are considering advisiability of casinos in the Meadowlands and the Monmouth Park racetrack. Legislation would reverse the state’s constitutional restriction, and the topic could be left up to voters.
The Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee on Dec. 17 approved Sweeney’s SCR185, that would pose the question of non-Atlantic City gaming in a public referendum next November, while the Assembly passed a twin version of the bill on to that house’s Tourism, Gaming and the Arts Committee.
The legislation would make for a “potentially huge” expansion of the New Jersey’s gaming industry, although the passage of a constitutional amendment is difficult to predict given the expected high turnout due to the presidential election.
Supporting New Jersey Families Act
Casino employees and the state’s labor force in general also stand to get a boost from pending legislation aiming to improve work-life balance and increase paid time off. Along with legislation that would help displaced casino workers prepare to re-enter the workplace, lawmakers are also considering a family-geared legislation package that was unveiled in May by Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, D-Bergen. The Supporting New Jersey Families Act, which has yet to undergo committee review, would require employers in all industries to provide shift workers with predictable schedules and time off to attend school activities, expand state employee family leave privileges and establish a commission to do a gender pay disparity study. The bills have twin legislation in the Assembly.
The first prong of Weinberg’s package, the Schedules that Work Act, S2933, provides a private right of action for employees seeking to change their work schedules.
Paid Sick Leave
Among the most controversial legislatative actions are those advocating for employees is the proposed Paid Sick Leave Law, S785 and A2354, under which workers would get the better of five to nine sick days or more generous packages provided under local laws.
The Senate bill, also sponsored by Weinberg, got full approval in Dec. 17, while the Assembly version is poised for a second reading by the chamber. That bill counts Assembly members Pamela R. Lampitt, D-Camden, Shavonda E. Sumter, D-Passaic, Raj Mukherji, D-Hudson, Jerry Green, D-Passaic, and Benjie E. Wimberly, D-Bergen-Passaic as primary sponsors.
During a Senate committee hearing in June, the legislation was hailed by unions, think tanks and groups such as the New Jersey Working Families Alliance. Business-centered organizations, such as the New Jersey Farm Bureau and the New Jersey State Chamber of Commerce, criticized the administrative and expense ramifications.
Given New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s previous opposition to mandated sick leave, the future of the legislation remains uncertain, since in the aggregate, the legislative proposals would create new administrative burdens on employers, including smaller businesses and start-ups, and increase the risk of litigation as traditional employer prerogatives are legislatively prescribed.
Flood Hazard Area Rules
The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection’s planned changes to flood hazard area rules, announced in June drew not only a backlash from environmentalists but twin bills proposed explicitly to overturn the changes. They are presently pending public comment.
Among the biggest changes in store is the increase in the amount of vegetation in riparian zones — where regulated water meets land — that can be disturbed for construction, and the extension of that allowed disturbance to building projects that would normally require a hardship exemption.
Sen. Raymond J. Lesniak, D-Union, served as a primary sponsor of SCR180 that received full Senate approval in October and is pending before the Assembly. Identical legislation, ACR249, was introduced in November by Assemblyman John F. McKeon, D-Morris, and Assemblywoman L. Grace Spencer, D-Essex. Both bills have been advanced by the Assembly Environment and Solid Waste Committee.
These rules affect virtually all development in all sectors across the state, and also serve as one of the state’s few points of leverage over federally authorized projects, like pipelines and utility facilitiesThese rules also dictate rebuilding and resiliency policy in and near flood prone areas. The impact would reach beyond the shore to industrial sites, many in low-lying areas along New Jersey Rivers.
Where the state goes on these issue affects not only environmental quality but also the value of properties, and the costs and likelihood of future business expansion.