Lawmakers advance bills to raise age to purchase tobacco, merge fire districts

The lame-duck session of the New Jersey Legislature is nearly over, and Thursday's second-to-last session day saw dozens of measures advance from committees and the full Senate.

Among the bills sent to Gov. Chris Christie for consideration was one that would revise the state's electronics recycling law and another that would create retirement savings accounts for private sector workers without pensions or 401(k)s.

Numerous other bills were approved by the Senate and sent to the Assembly for concurrence votes, or were released by Senate or Assembly committees for floor votes on the final voting day Monday.

Bills not sent to Christie before the start of the new session die and must be reintroduced.

Here's a rundown of some of the measures that were advanced Thursday:

Consolidating fire districts

Legislation written by Assemblymen Herb Conaway, D-7th of Delran, and Troy Singleton, D-7th of Palmyra, to permit fire districts to merge if their towns' elected officials choose to consolidate them was approved by the Senate by a 37-0 vote.

The two lawmakers drafted the bill after officials in Edgewater Park and Beverly expressed an interest in merging their fire districts but discovered state law didn't allow it.

Edgewater Park has no active fire companies. The fire district contracts with Beverly to provide protection. Under the current contract, Edgewater Park was to pay $278,524 for the 2015 calendar year, according to the district's budget.

The bill was previously approved by the Assembly, but that chamber must vote on it again because of changes made by the Senate.

Electronic waste

Another bill of local interest would revise New Jersey's electronics recycling law in response to complaints that it is no longer effective.

New Jersey has prohibited televisions, computers and other devices from being disposed of in landfills since 2008 because of lead and other harmful substances they contain. Under current law, manufacturers of televisions and many other electronic devices must pay for the collection, transportation and recycling of their share of the discarded equipment, determined by a formula based on the manufacturers' share of calculated returns.

Counties and recyclers have complained that the formula doesn't reflect 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.

Burlington City and Riverside have dropped their electronics recycling programs because they were unable to find a willing vendor, and Burlington Township has eliminated television collections from its program. The Burlington County Board of Freeholders has warned that the county's free electronics recycling program is in jeopardy unless the formula is updated.

The legislation, which was approved by the Assembly last month, would revise the formula so it's based on each manufacturer's market share, rather than its share of returns. It would also update the law to require the recycling of printers and fax machines, and allow the Department of Environmental Protection to add more devices to the list of equipment covered under the law.

The Senate approved the bill Thursday by a 33-7 vote, sending it to Christie to consider.

Secure Choice Savings Act

Legislation being pushed by AARP to help workers without pensions was also sent to Christie after the Senate approved it 30-6.

The bill, known as the New Jersey Secure Choice Savings Act, would require employers with 25 or more workers that do not offer a qualified retirement plan to enroll their people into a state program, which would deduct a percentage of their paychecks to invest in individual retirement accounts.

Companies with fewer than 25 employees would be eligible to participate in the program, but would not be required to join.

Employees would be enrolled automatically at a 3 percent paycheck deduction but would be able to opt out or choose a different contribution amount.

AARP and other supporters say the legislation is needed to help avert a future crisis involving generations of workers retiring without adequate savings. More than half of New Jersey's private sector workers don't have any workplace retirement plans, according to AARP.

Hospital property tax exemptions

Legislation to require New Jersey's nonprofit hospitals to make payments in lieu of taxes to their host municipalities and counties advanced out of the Assembly Appropriations Committee, clearing it for an expected floor vote by the full Assembly on Monday, the last voting session.

The Senate is also expected to vote on the measure on Monday's final voting day.

The bill would not change nonprofit hospitals' tax-exempt status, which dates back to 1913, but it would require those with for-profit operations to make "community service contributions" to their host towns equal to $2.50 per day for each hospital bed or $250 a day for each facility providing satellite emergency care.

Among Burlington County's three nonprofit hospitals, Evesham-based Virtua could be required to pay $349,487 to Mount Holly for hosting Virtua Memorial and $180,675 to Evesham for hosting Virtua Marlton. Lourdes Health could have to pay $157,862 to Willingboro for hosting Lourdes Medical Center of Burlington County and $91,250 to Pemberton Township for hosting the satellite ER at Deborah Heart and Lung Center.

The payments would be dedicated to either property tax relief or police, fire and emergency services. Five percent of the payments would go to the county where the hospital or satellite ER is located.

Hospitals would also be able to deduct voluntary community contributions they make from their payments, and hospitals losing money would be able to apply for an exemption from the payments.

Supporters of the bill say it's needed to protect the state's 62 nonprofit hospitals' tax-exempt status in the wake of a successful lawsuit in North Jersey. Opponents are concerned the proposed service fees aren't adequate.

Tobacco sales

New Jersey would become the first state to raise the legal age to buy cigarettes and other tobacco products to 21 under legislation advanced by the Assembly Appropriations Committee.

The bill's backers say raising the legal purchasing age from 19 would prevent more youths from taking up the unhealthy habit. But representatives of gasoline and convenience stores complain that the change would hurt more than just their tobacco sales, since smokers typically purchase other items.

New Jersey's government also stands to lose about $19 million in tax revenues annually, according to a fiscal note.

The committee's approval means the bill can be voted on by the full Assembly on Monday. The Senate has already passed it.

Pedestrian safety

Legislation to create an advisory committee to study ways to improve pedestrian safety is also poised to receive final legislative approval Monday.

The bill was voted out of the Assembly Transportation Committee on Thursday. It would establish a 15-member commission to review issues and factors that cause pedestrian and bicycle accidents and recommend possible improvements.

Eleven pedestrians and one bicyclist died in traffic accidents in Burlington County last year, including two pedestrians struck and killed on Route 130, which has been labeled New Jersey's most dangerous for walkers in each of the last five years.

A Senate version of the bill sponsored by Sen. Diane Allen, R-7th of Edgewater Park, was already approved by the upper chamber.

Another pedestrian safety bill, sponsored by Allen, Conaway and Singleton, would boost fines for traffic violations involving pedestrians and dedicate a share of the revenues for pedestrian safety education programs and improvements on roads with high death tolls.

That bill was passed by the Assembly in May but has stalled in the Senate Transportation Committee.

Police body cameras

Another measure that failed to advance Thursday would have required all uniformed police officers to wear body cameras within a year.

A hearing on the bill was held in the Senate Law and Public Safety Committee but a vote to release it failed by a 3-2 vote.

Supporters said that the benefits of the camera outweigh the costs and that the equipment would ultimately save towns money by reducing legal expenses related to public complaints against officers.

Opponents said that mandating the cameras was wrong, and that if the bill became law, it would likely be challenged as an unfunded mandate, which violates the state constitution. They also said forfeitures weren't a reliable enough funding source.

Ultimately, those concerns prompted Sen. Nicholas Sacco, D-32nd of North Bergen, to cast the deciding vote against releasing it from the committee.

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