Christie signs bills to aid veterans, merge fire districts; vetoes raising tobacco age to 21

Disabled veterans and Purple Heart medal recipients will no longer have to pay parking meters in New Jersey cities and towns, and 19- and 20-year-olds will still be permitted to purchase cigarettes and other tobacco products as a result of actions taken Tuesday by Gov. Chris Christie.

The Legislature's two-year session ended last week, and Tuesday was the final day Christie had to act on more than 150 bills sent to him during the last 10 days.

While the Republican governor signed into law close to 100 measures, including free parking for disabled veterans and wounded soldiers, he chose not to sign 62 others approved by lawmakers.

The lack of action, known as a pocket veto, means the bills must be reintroduced and moved through the Legislature again.

Among the measures Christie let die was a bill to raise the legal age to buy cigarettes and other tobacco products from 19 to 21, and another that would have required nonprofit hospitals to make payments in lieu of taxes to their host towns and counties.

Other bills that fell victim to the pocket veto included a measure mandating that elementary school students receive a minimum 20 minutes of daily recess and one to revise the state's electronics recycling law, which Burlington County officials had urged the governor to sign.

Here's a rundown of those bills, as well as some others Christie signed or let die:

Veterans bills

Among the dozens of bills Christie signed, 11 were designed to aid either veterans or active military service members and their families.

They included a bill exempting disabled veterans and Purple Heart recipients from paying parking meters, provided their vehicles bear the specialty license plates or placards issued by the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission for those veterans and medal holders.

Another of the signed bills authorizes property tax deferments for deployed service members. Two others waive construction permit fees for disabled veterans making home renovations that improve their access, and makes free financial planning available to disabled veterans and their caregivers.

Fire districts

Another bill would permit fire districts to merge if their towns' elected officials choose to consolidate them.

Assemblymen Herb Conaway, D-7th of Delran, and Troy Singleton, D-7th of Palmyra, penned it after officials in Edgewater Park and Beverly expressed an interest in merging their fire districts but discovered state law didn't allow it.

Singleton said the legislation would allow more towns to move in the direction of mergers and property tax savings.

Farming bills

Several bills to assist New Jersey farmers were also signed into law, including one to permit so-called "rural microenterprises" — such as snowplowing services, bakeries, tractor repair shops or veterinary practices — to locate on preserved farms, provided the businesses don't interfere with farming activities.

Another bill signed by Christie would update motor vehicle regulations to expand the distances and hours that slow farm vehicles are permitted to travel on public roads. It would also require motorists approaching in the same direction as tractors or a vehicle affixed with an emblem for farm equipment to slow to the same speed as a slow-moving vehicle before passing it. Violators would be subject to a fine of between $100 and $500.

Farming advocates applauded Christie's action on those bills and others designed to support farming and agriculture. However, they were critical of his decision to pocket-veto legislation to revamp the division of corporate business tax revenues dedicated for open space, farmland and historic preservation. The bill sought to devote more funds to land acquisition.

Tobacco sales

Among the bills Christie chose not to sign, one of the most notable was a measure that sought to raise the legal age to buy cigarettes and other tobacco products to 21.

The bill's backers said boosting the legal purchasing age would prevent more youths from taking up the unhealthy habit. But representatives of gasoline and convenience stores lobbied against it, arguing it would hurt more than just their tobacco sales, since smokers typically buy other items.

New Jersey's government also stood to lose about $19 million in tax revenues annually.

Christie's action was slammed by the American Cancer Society and other supporters as shortsighted and a cave-in to the tobacco industry.

Hospital property tax exemptions

Legislation to protect nonprofit hospitals' tax-exempt status but require those with for-profit operations to make "community service contributions" to their host towns fell victim to a pocket veto.

Supporters of the bill said the legislation was needed in the wake of a successful lawsuit in North Jersey that called into question nonprofit hospitals' tax-exempt status, which dates back to 1913. The bill would have required them to pay $2.50 a day for each hospital bed or $250 a day for each facility providing satellite emergency care to their host towns for property tax relief or police, fire and emergency services.

Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-3rd of West Deptford, said that the bill was a "thoughtful and effective means to have hospitals pay their fair share" and that Christie's decision would cost homeowners tax relief. 

"Once again, property tax relief for middle-class homeowners falls victim to the governor’s veto pen," Sweeney said.


Christie also chose not to sign a bill that sought to revamp New Jersey's electronics recycling law to address complaints from towns and counties that it's no longer effective.

The state has prohibited televisions, computers and other devices from being disposed of in landfills since 2008 because of lead and other harmful substances they contain. Manufacturers of televisions and other electronics are required to pay for the recycling of their share of the discarded equipment determined by a formula based on their share of calculated returns.

Counties and recyclers have complained that the formula no longer reflects the actual recycling costs and is causing many recyclers to refuse to retrieve them from county or municipal drop-off sites without charging a fee.

The Burlington County Board of Freeholders pushed for the legislation and urged Christie to sign the bill, arguing that without it the county's e-waste program and those in Willingboro, Florence and Bordentown Township would be in jeopardy of ending.

In response to the pocket veto, county spokesman Eric Arpert said the county government would continue to work with the Legislature and towns to try to keep the recycling programs alive.

Lisa's Law

Another bill vetoed by the governor would have created a pilot program in Ocean County to electronically monitor certain domestic violence offenders and alert their victims if they were close by.

The bill, which was penned by Singleton and Assemblyman Ronald Dancer, R-12th of Plumsted, was named after Letizia "Lisa" Zindell, a Toms River woman who was murdered in 2009 by her former fiancé after he was released from jail for violating a restraining order that Zindell had filed against him.

Christie previously vetoed the bill, arguing that the proposed monitoring and alert program may not be feasible and should be studied. His veto language — which the Legislature voted to concur with — ordered the New Jersey Attorney General's Office to study the issue and report back.

The attorney general's report noted that the New Jersey State Parole Board already uses GPS technology to monitor high-risk sex offenders and that the same technology could be used to track domestic violence offenders and victims. But the AG warned that expanding the program to those offenders and victims could be expensive and would not be completely reliable.

Christie cited the report in a rare pocket-veto message explaining his decision to veto the bill a second time. 

"After an extensive evaluation, the attorney general determined that the requisite technology is significantly limited, and that uncertainties about the operation of the program could give victims a false sense of security," Christie wrote in the message.

"I continue to applaud the sponsors’ attention to both the need to protect victims of domestic violence and the possibilities for using new technologies to create safer communities; however, this avenue is not yet reliable enough to journey down," he added.

Singleton said he was shocked by the governor's action, describing it as "befuddling" and a "setback" for domestic violence victims.

"The technology is almost identical to the technology in use right now for persons on permanent parole supervision. That's the technology we're talking about," he said. "His logic is counterintuitive. ... We're trying to turn victims into survivors, and the governor has set us back again."

Singleton said the bill has already been reintroduced, and he promised to continue pushing for it to become law. He also called on Christie to include funding for the proposed pilot in his 2016-17 fiscal year budget.

"If he applauds the sponsors' efforts, well then, he has the opportunity to show it by putting a pilot program into place with his proposed budget," he said. 

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