A Look Inside New Jersey's Legislature Who's In Charge Here?

A Look Inside New Jersey's Legislature

Throughout its 200-year history, the New Jersey Legislature as an institution has reinvented and adapted itself to provide for the needs and concerns of its citizens and constituents. For all the impact the state legislature has on ordinary citizens, however, few people really understand Trenton's inner workings, or have a good grasp of how proposed bills become the laws that govern their day-to-day lives.

History Lesson

New Jersey's form of government mirrors the United States' three branches of government: the executive, legislative and judiciary. In its early years, the New Jersey Legislature was considered the most important branch, but after World War II, the executive branch became much more powerful.

Amid the crisis of the Revolution, the first session of the New Jersey Legislature convened on August 27, 1776. New Jersey was aware that British troops were on their way, and the internal conflict between colonists loyal to Britain and colonists who sought independence was equally grave. In 1775, New Jersey had 13 counties and representatives from all formed a Provincial Congress to supersede the royal Governor. In June of 1776, the Provincial Congress had authorized the preparation of a constitution—once written, it was adopted by the Provincial Congress and accepted by the Continental Congress.

In recent years, the Legislature has acquired greater authority and independence than it had previously and is currently operating under a system that is more consistent with its earliest days. Although the governor remains the focus of state policy, the Legislature has become more independent and has gained increased stature as a co-equal branch of government. This resulted from two institutional changes in legislative operations. First, beginning in the mid-1970's, the performance and influence of legislative committees have improved dramatically—to the extent that they now hold regularly scheduled public meetings, solicit expert testimony, and amend many of the bills considered.

The second strengthening of legislative authority resulted from changes in the tenure of leadership. The tradition of annually rotating the offices of President of the Senate and the Speaker of the General Assembly among veteran members of the majority party has given way to longer terms, thus providing those positions with greater influence and authority to effect positive change.

According to Susan Swords, the state's manager of legislative information, the New Jersey Legislature consists of two Houses: a 40-member Senate and an 80-member General Assembly. Senators must be at least 30 years old and residents of the state for four years prior to the election. Members of the assembly must be 21 and state residents for two years. All legislators must also live in the districts they represent.

Formal legislative action is expressed through a passage of a bill, or by adoption of a resolution, which expresses the sentiments or opinions of the members. There are three types of resolutions.

"A joint resolution must pass in both Houses and be signed by the Governor," Swords says. "Whereas a concurrent resolution must pass both Houses but doesn't need to be signed by the Governor. Then there's the simple resolution which is considered only in the House where it is proposed."

Each House sets its own meeting schedule and they usually hold about 40 sessions a year. Both chambers are located in the State House in Trenton.

"A normal session will consist of committee meetings in the morning, followed by party conferences and floor sessions," says Albert Porroni, executive director and legislative counsel for the Office of Legislative Services (OLS).

In The Budget

Acting Governor Richard Codey presides over the Senate and is perhaps one of the state's more powerful legislators. He first came to the Senate in 1982.

Senator Bernard Kenny Jr. is the Majority Leader and Senator Shirley Turner is the President Pro Tempore of the Senate. The General Assembly Leadership currently has Albio Sires serving as Speaker, Joseph Roberts as Majority Leader and Jerry Green as the Housing Chair.

According to Porroni, New Jersey operates on a fiscal year that begins on July 1 and ends the following June 30. The governor delivers the annual budget message to the Legislature for the ensuing fiscal year on or before the third Tuesday following the first meeting of the Legislature.

"The budget proposal is than sent to the Senate Budget and Appropriations and the Assembly Budget committees for review," Porroni says. "The budget must be signed by July 1."

Government Begins at Home

So what exactly does the legislature do for co-op and condo owners? Everyone from the governor down has a hand in making sure that the homeowners are seeing their needs met.

On May 16, the Assembly passed the Uniform Common Interest Ownership Act, (UCIOA) the first real reform of the myriad laws governing condominium and community housing associations in 30 years.

"The bill makes necessary changes to check and balance the power that association boards wield, but the most important reform is that the bill would set a standard system for regulating common interest associations," says Assemblyman Jerry Green, who serves as the housing chair. "New Jersey currently has different laws for condo boards, co-op boards and housing community associations. It simply is a matter of common sense and good policy that all residents living in common interest housing have the same protections and associations have to govern according to the same rulebook."

Although the legislature does not regulate housing policy—that function falls to the executive branch—they do promulgate the state's overall housing policy.

"For example," says Green, "the Legislature does take a keen interest in seeing that UCIOA and other fair housing regulations are fulfilling their promise to our residents, and we do not shy away from enacting laws that would force necessary changes to ensure fairness."

McGreevey's Legacy

Before Governor James McGreevey left office last year, he had started a program for smart growth initiatives. One bright spot to come of this was the Highlands Preservation effort, which was successful in ensuring that the watershed that many New Jersey residents rely on would not be destroyed by over-development.

"Another really bright spot in Governor McGreevey's smart-growth plan was the law which granted towns transfer of development rights, or TDR," Green adds. "In New Jersey, perhaps more than in any state, sprawl has become overbearing. Many towns could only sit on the sidelines as developers outbid them to buy what little open space remained and replace farms and forests with cookie-cutter housing developments. Now, because of the TDR law, towns are empowered to guide development to areas that can sustain housing growth."

That means that redeveloping efforts will pop up, yet a sensitive wildlife area will be maintained.

"I have taken great pride in my participation with the Highlands Legislation," Green says. "As the chair of housing and local government, I was able to work with my fellow legislators to secure a set aside percentage of acreage to be used for housing."

Lobbyists Get Their Say

Just because you're not a member of the government doesn't mean that you can't make your voice heard in the halls of government. Of course, most people don't have time to voice their concerns in person, but luckily there are plenty of lobbyists in New Jersey whose full-time job is to look out for people's interests. The Community Association Institute of New Jersey (CAI-NJ)'s Legislative Action Committee (LAC) and the New Jersey Apartment Association (NJAA) are two such groups who wield major influence on bills before the Assembly.

"It's important that the residents on whose behalf [lobbyists] work have adequate representation, and their specific needs and concerns are addressed by the state," says Audrey Wisotsky, an attorney with Pepper Hamilton, and LAC chairman. "The Legislative Action Committee monitors proposed legislation that affects the community association industry and keeps the CAI-NJ membership informed."

Assemblyman Green thinks it's important for lobbyists to be a part of the process, but he does hope that people speak up for themselves as well.

"However," says Green, "given the breadth of many of the laws proposed, that simply is not a realistic goal. Legislators rely on the expertise of CAI-NJ, NJAA, and the like to bring the stories of residents to us, and help us understand the possible effects of our actions. When all possible, though, I certainly prefer to hear from the residents themselves."

Keith Loria is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to The New Jersey Cooperator.

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