After rejecting 200 bills from the previous legislative session, including provisions to change the smoking age to 21 and prohibit convicted carjackers from having guns, Republican Gov. Chris Christie could soon face fresh decisions on those measures and others he vetoed.
The Democrat-controlled Legislature continued the new legislative session with hearings last week on about 50 bills, at least 20 percent of which were rejected by Christie at least once.
Recycling measures from a previous legislative session is a common practice in New Jersey, but this year it comes as Christie runs for the Republican presidential nomination and has blocked bills from a politically hostile Democratic majority, including headline-grabbing measures on guns. Christie argued felons already cannot possess firearms in New Jersey.
Republican primary voters tilt conservative, while New Jersey, which has some of the strictest gun laws in the country, has about 700,000 more Democrats than Republicans.
Democrats acknowledge the political motivation behind forcing Christie, who spent much of 2015 outside the state, to decide on legislation that might be popular at home but a poison pill among GOP voters. Christie finished 10th among Iowa caucusgoers last week and faces a large test for the future of his presidential nomination when New Hampshire voters go to the polls Tuesday.
“Maybe by the time these go through, the governor will be out of the presidential race and back being a governor and might look at some of these things in terms of their positive impacts on the people of New Jersey rather than the people of New Hampshire,” said Democratic Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg.
Democrats are also sending a signal to residents about what a possible liberal agenda might look like if they can capture the governor’s mansion in 2017, Weinberg added. She pointed to what she called “very sensible” gun measures.
Another explanation, experts say, is that lawmakers want to demonstrate they’re working on something — anything — since Christie’s absence on the campaign trail has slowed government deal-making on big issues like public pension and health benefits and transportation spending to a crawl.
“You have to show your constituents that you’re working,” said Peter Woolley, a political science professor at Fairleigh Dickinson University. “You have to continue to posture even on bills that you know are not going to go anywhere.”
Republicans, who are in the minority in the Legislature, disagree with the majority’s approach, arguing that it saps resources from focusing on the state’s biggest problems.
“The only bills we should be working on right now are bills that will fix our looming bankruptcy,” said Republican Assemblyman Declan O’Scanlon.
Democrats say it’s possible to address issues big and small.
“We’re able to walk and chew gum at the same time,” Weinberg said.
Despite the often bitter disputes between Christie and legislative Democrats, the governor signed 381 measures into law while rejecting 200. His office’s response to why he vetoed many of the measures was that the Legislature passed too many bills at the end of its two-year legislative session.
Among the bills the Legislature reviewed on Thursday were provisions to increase the smoking age, which Christie rejected last month.
Other bills previously rejected but under consideration again include one that gives $21 in energy assistance to certain low-income families and another bill that would expand the eligibility of parole for inmates because of medical reasons.