Looking forward to a summer break

Legislative Report 

If you think back to this time of year throughout your life, you might recall the excitement you felt when school was winding down and a long summer break was just days away. For a few short months, there was no homework, no early morning bus rides and hopefully the chance to hit the beach, play with friends or go on vacation. Perhaps you spent June staring at the clock and rushing through your homework trying to make the days go faster so that long summer could begin sooner.

In a similar sense, the NJ State Legislature is in that exact same mode today. June has traditionally been the month when everyone – legislators, the governor’s office, lobbyists and others – counts down the days to the passing of the budget so their summer recess can begin.

The month starts slowly enough and then, all of a sudden, in the next-to-last week of the month, you will find committees moving bills that have sat dormant for months. The budget committee will pull numerous all-day – and sometimes all-night – meetings to develop a state budget they have been analyzing since February. Sticking with the school analogy, all this homework has to be delivered by June 30, and then vacation can start.

This summer break may have a few weeks added to it, as the entire Legislature is up for reelection. While emergencies or a few must-do issues may pop up, legislative leaders would prefer to spend their time in their districts from July to Election Day. It would not be shocking to see the Senate and Assembly quietly going about their business well into the fall.

But the month of June is not over yet, and the Legislature can’t start vacation until the homework is done. The budget will be introduced and moved through the process sometime during the last two weeks of the month. Voting sessions are scheduled, though likely not needed, for every day during the last week of the month.

Out of a potential $53 billion state budget, major tax cut issues are on the table for seniors and corporations, which are being hotly debated internally. However, any suggestion that disagreements among the governor and the Democrats in the Legislature are going to lead to a government shutdown ignores the reality that this is an election year. There is no chance Democrats want to shoot themselves in the foot as they try to defend their majority in the Legislature.

For the NJ State PBA, we have a number of things to do before summer vacation starts. Legislation adopting the governor’s recommendations on 20 and Out will be voted on sometime during the last two weeks of the month and sent to the governor. Depending on when in June or July the governor signs the revised bill, the PFRS Board of Trustees will have the power to decide when to start accepting applications for retirements.

We are also working to get legislation to the governor before the end of the month to extend criminal penalties for throwing bodily fluids at law enforcement officers. This is a specific crisis for correctional police officers since inmates know there is no more solitary confinement and judges are running penalties concurrently with their sentences.

Finally, summer wouldn’t be summer in New Jersey without hordes of teens and young adults flocking to the boardwalks and shore towns. Unfortunately, the passage of the law that makes it impossible for an officer to detain, search and arrest a minor using cannabis or alcohol has started to negatively impact vacation spots across the state. PBA members don’t need to be reminded that the penalty for searching or arresting a minor using alcohol is a deprivation of civil rights charge and potential jail time.

The Legislature is currently considering a bill to allow an officer to write a minor a summons for $100 for underage alcohol use. However, the well-intentioned bill has loopholes and traps that make its enforcement unlikely. The bill doesn’t compel a person to show ID to an officer who has probable cause to stop them for the “unconcealed” use of alcohol. So as long as they don’t run away from you, there is nothing you can do to force them to comply so you can write the summons.

And since the odor of alcohol is not probable cause to stop a minor, the bill doesn’t explain how an officer can approach a teen with vodka in a sealed Yeti mug to determine if they are in possession of alcohol. The underlying law says that a minor can’t consent to a search.

Perhaps most concerning is the potential trap for an officer who sees alcohol and approaches a group of suspected minors. The officer goes to take possession of the beer and comes up with cannabis during the search. Will officers then be facing a complaint for violating the minor’s civil rights during the search and have to defend themselves that it was the drink and not the smell of cannabis that drew their attention to the minor?

All this adds up to a potential charge of deprivation of civil rights, termination and jail for the officer if anything goes wrong. And we all know there are countless lawyers and zealots among the ACLU and social justice groups who would love to file that complaint against the officer. The State PBA is currently actively lobbying to fix this approach and the underlying law.

With any luck, the Legislature will pass all of these tests and we can join them in a fun summer with not much to do but soak up the sun and hope September takes a long time to get here.