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Democrats dominate in getting bills to become laws, with leadership snagging the most wins

Watchdogs and Republicans say power is concentrated in too few hands in Trenton

By Dana DiFilippo, New Jersey Monitor - February 15, 2024
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The New Jersey State House in Trenton, N.J., Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2021. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Republicans introduced just 6% of the bills that became state law in New Jersey’s last legislative session, even though they held 41% of legislative seats.

That’s not exactly eureka! news for anyone who follows politics in Trenton, where Democrats control the Statehouse. But critics say that Democratic dominance in public policymaking can paralyze legislators in the minority party even when they propose policies with bipartisan appeal.

“Elections have consequences, and to the victor go the spoils,” said John Froonjian, executive director of the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at Stockton University. “Bills by a minority member are not likely to ever see the light of day. It’s not a coincidence that Ed Durr, in his short Senate career, got virtually no legislation passed that he proposed. The Democrats basically shut him down in terms of getting any of his bills passed and then criticized him during the election for getting nothing done. But that’s the way the game is played.”

The stagnation of some lawmakers’ bills also underscores watchdogs’ warnings that political power is concentrated in very few hands in a state where even the ballot design, which gives political party leaders outsized influence on who gets advantageous placement, can feel undemocratic.

Of the 85 legislators listed as first prime sponsor on the 479 bills that became law in the last legislation session, most — 86% — were legislative leaders or committee chairs, according to a New Jersey Monitor analysis. The two-year session ended Jan. 9.

The lawmakers who got the most bills passed hold top leadership positions in their respective chambers, and all are Democrats — Senate Majority Caucus Chair Nellie Pou and Senate Majority Leader Teresa Ruiz each had 18 bills become law; Assembly Majority Leader Lou Greenwald, 17; Senate Democratic Conference Chair Vin Gopal, 16; Senate Majority Whip Troy Singleton, 14; and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin and Senate President Nicholas Scutari, 13 each.

Forty lawmakers couldn’t get a single bill passed into law, as first prime sponsor. Thirty of those are Republican. Of the 10 Democrats, five were freshmen; one, Sen. Samuel Thompson, was a lifelong Republican who became a Democrat to protest GOP leaders’ rejection of his reelection bid; and one, Sen. Ronald Rice, resigned eight months into the session and then died.

Republicans, unsurprisingly, object to such trends.

“The way that they do things demeans the process, and it’s bad for your average citizen because the whole point of this is to have debate and discussion to refine things and bring bills a little bit more to the middle or improve them,” said Assemblyman Brian Bergen (R-Morris). “But they don’t even want to give the illusion of bipartisanship.”

It’s not just partisan sour grapes. Good government advocates, too, say such trends show the system is ripe for reform.

Campaign spending and New Jersey’s unique “county line,” in which the party’s preferred candidates get prime placement on ballots, further expand the power among those who wield a stranglehold on the Statehouse, said Julia Sass Rubin, a professor at Rutgers University’s Edward J. Bloustein School of Public Policy.

Rubin pointed to legislative leadership political action committees, where legislators donate campaign funds for legislative leaders to use to defend vulnerable seats or win new ones.

“Legislators elected with the help of leadership PACs become beholden to the leadership and more likely to vote for them as leaders, further concentrating power in their hands,” Rubin said.

Lawmakers first created legislative leadership PACs in 1993, Rubin said. Before then, Senate presidents and Assembly speakers typically served one to four years, but since then, legislative leaders typically remain in their powerful posts until forced out, which further reinforces their power, Rubin said. In the three decades before leadership PACs existed, the Senate presidency changed hands 13 times; in the three decades since, just five people have held the Legislature’s most potent post, she noted.

Democrats acknowledged their edge as the majority party but maintained that getting bills to the governor’s desk is tough for everyone and requires relationship-building.

Sen. Paul Moriarty (D-Camden) was first prime sponsor on 86 bills last session, 10 of which became laws. Moriarty, a state lawmaker since 2006 who moved to the Senate this term, was a deputy speaker in the Assembly in the last term.

“There are thousands of bills at any given time in the state of New Jersey, and other states as well. And only a limited number of them ever get to the finish line. So it is a task: You are pushing a large rock up a hill all the time. You have to be relentless, and you have to stand out, sometimes be a noodge, be a pest — and you have to be the majority party most of the time because the agenda is set by the majority party,” he said.

Glut of bills

Most bills lawmakers introduce never pass. Of 10,654 bills and resolutions in Trenton’s legislative pipeline in the two-year session that ended last month, just 4 percent became law.

That didn’t stop lawmakers from trying. The busiest filer was Assemblywoman Carol Murphy (D-Burlington), a state legislator since 2018 who’s now running for Congress. She introduced 355 bills, only three of which became law, including designating cranberry juice the state drink, declaring the last week in April Military Child Appreciation Week, and establishing the New Jersey Ireland Trade Commission.

Former Assemblywoman DeAnne DeFuccio (R-Bergen), who took office in 2021 and opted not to run for reelection last year, introduced the fewest — just two. Those bills would have required schools to teach students how to write their names in cursive and allowed police officers to stand guard at polling places located in public schools. 

Legislators on either end of that scale “might be some cause for concern,” Froonjian said.

“If you’ve introduced no bills or just a few, you got to wonder, ‘do you care about anything if you’ve not introduced any legislation?’ You would hope that a legislator has some priorities that they hold dear or some issues back home in the district that are important that they’re going to champion,” Froonjian said.

“But if you’re introducing hundreds of bills that don’t ever move, you wonder: Are they just a publicity hound trying to look like they’re actively legislating but really not doing anything productive to change public policy or make lives better?”

Still, he noted, other factors can drive lawmakers to introduce bills, even when they know there’s no hope they’ll pass. Bills can be a bald headline grab or a fundraising tool for lawmakers looking to show supporters they’re doing something, he said. They can also help legislators gain influence and craft identities as an expert or champion on a particular issue, he added.

On the bright side

Some Republicans are philosophical about the GOP bills that stall and die, saying such is the lot in life for conservatives in a state that skews blue.

“Democrats are in the majority and they are, to their credit, taking advantage of being in the majority and getting their issues and legislation through quickly, easily. That’s the way it is,” said Assemblyman Gerry Scharfenberger (R-Monmouth). “I’m sure if you go to Kansas or anywhere else, it’s the same thing there, with the majority getting their bills passed.”

Legislators who sign on to legislation as second prime sponsors or co-sponsors still get bragging rights, he added.

And there’s more to legislative service than passing laws, others noted.

“It’s not always a negative that some legislators are backbenchers. They can still vote their ideology, provide constituent services, and represent the voters by voting the way they would want them to. That doesn’t make them bad legislators; you need some worker bees,” Froonjian said.

As for Bergen, he introduced 56 bills in the last session, on issues ranging from self-defense and physical fitness requirements for law enforcement officers to income tax exemptions for veterans to term limits for Assembly members.

None became law, and none that he introduced as first prime sponsor in the 2020-21 session made it to law either. But he hasn’t given up on trying to get Gov. Phil Murphy’s signature on his legislation — he’s already introduced 55 bills since the new session started last month.

Still, he’s come to regard his role as a much-needed voice of opposition against bills “that are stupid and make us worse off.”

That approach got him booted off the powerful Assembly appropriations committee after he repeatedly protested a Democrat-sponsored proposal to hike lawmaker salaries that legislative leaders fast-tracked last month. The bill passed and Murphy signed it into law last month.

“That stuff cuts to my core. It sounds maybe a little corny, but I really believe in this. This isn’t a joke to me, and that’s why I get so upset about it,” he said.

It’s also why Bergen called out his committee ouster in a video he posted on social media.

“When I first got into the Legislature, I wanted to pass bills with my name on it — that’s what everybody wants when they first get there,” he said. “But it didn’t take me long to realize that was not my role to play and that I could fulfill an important role, which is trying my damnedest to stop bad legislation. In order to do that, you give up your opportunity to have your name on some bills, because you’ve got to stand up to the leadership, you’ve got to stand up to the Democrats, and that comes with a price. So I don’t need to name the state drink or get a license plate bill passed. What I want to do is make our state a better place.”

This story was originally published in the New Jersey Monitor


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