The 218th Session of the New Jersey Legislature began on January 9, 2018 with the swearing-in of new members, remarks from Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-3) and newly elected Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-19), and the final State of the State Address from Governor Chris Christie.
Senate President Stephen Sweeney retained his role as leader of the Senate. Democrats control the chamber by a 25 to 15 margin, a one seat gain from the prior session. The Senate has five new members: Chris Brown (R-2); Troy Singleton (D-7); Vin Gopal (D-11); Declan O’Scanlon (R-13); and Joe Cryan (D-20).
Senate President Sweeney outlined his priorities for the 218th Session. The Senate will convene a joint panel on taxation, led by Senator Paul Sarlo (D-36) and Senator Steve Oroho (R-24). The Senate will also focus on equalizing the school funding formula among towns, expanding pre-K education and focusing on higher education affordability. The Senate President called for a new round of higher education investment and for expanding the progress made on vocational employment.
Transportation infrastructure will be a focus for the Senate. Specifically, the Senate President spoke of expanding light rail service along the Hudson-Bergen Rail and the creation of the Camden-Glassboro Light Rail. Freight rail is also an area in need of improvement as New Jersey expands into being a logistics state.
Labor issues will continue to be a priority in the session. This includes raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour, expanding the State’s family leave law, and securing pay equity for women in the workplace.
Speaker Craig Coughlin assumed the leadership role in the Assembly, succeeding Vincent Prieto (D-32) who served two terms as Speaker. Democrats expanded their ranks and control the chamber by a 54 to 26 margin. The Assembly has nine new members: John Armato (D-2); Carol Murphy (D-7); Ryan Peters (D-8); Serena DiMaso (R-13); Roy Friedman (D-16); Yvonne Lopez (D-19); Harold Wirths (R-24); Shanique Speight (D-29); and Chris DePhillips (R-40).
Speaker Coughlin outlined an agenda that focused on taking back New Jersey for the middle class. The Speaker stated that his objective will be to address the anxieties of the citizens, which means equalizing school funding, providing access for affordable housing, and ensuring equal pay for equal work. The Speaker also wants to make the State vibrant by investing in science innovation and technology and making the State’s transportation system dependable.
Food insecurity and hunger will also be a priority for the Speaker. He noted that too many communities do not have access to a supermarket, too many citizens do not have access to food on a regular basis, and food banks do not have enough support.
Lastly, the Speaker noted that he will look for collaboration with the Senate and the Governor, but that there may be times when the “Assembly must set its own course and act as an independent and equal branch of government.”
Governor’s State of the State
In his final State of the State address, Governor Christie highlighted many of the accomplishments of his administration over the last eight years. These accomplishments include:
- A reduction in the unemployment rate by half and a fully funded unemployment insurance fund;
- Tax cuts and a decreased growth in property taxes;
- Higher education reform;
- The revitalization of Atlantic City and Camden;
- Criminal justice reform;
- New legislation and efforts to address the opioid epidemic;
- Increased investment in transportation infrastructure;
- Hurricane Sandy recovery; and
- Pension and health benefit reform.
The Governor gave a warning to the Legislature and incoming Governor Phil Murphy that important issues remain. This includes maintaining the progress on addressing the State’s highest in the nation property taxes and the need to implement additional reforms to make pension and health benefits more realistic and sustainable.