Speaker Coughlin Sees Clear Path For Marijuana Referendum; Talks Lame Duck, Legislative Priorities


New Jersey Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin spoke to radio listeners on 1450AM Friday morning, taking some questions from callers, as part of the “Speak with the Speaker” program.

The conversation began with the subject of adult use cannabis and Coughlin seemed optimistic that this would become a reality in the coming years. “I think it would’ve been best to do it legislatively,” Coughlin said, adding that “We’ve made the decision to put it on the ballot and trust the judgment of the people of New Jersey.” There will be a scheduled public hearing on December 12, to which Coughlin said, “I anticipate it being up for a vote December 16, I think it’ll go well, it’ll pass. I think there’s a chance we’ll have some bipartisan support.” He said that there were Republicans in favor of putting the matter to a popular referendum. As for the Assembly, “I think it’ll certainly get the 41 votes it needs to pass.” A supermajority of 48+ votes “means it wouldn’t have to be voted on again next year.”

When asked if he thought a legislative defeat for the referendum question was possible, he seemed confident. “I think [failure] is pretty remote. I think we’ll gain votes for that and I anticipate it being relatively straightforward to vote. There hasn’t been a lot of pushback on the motion.” The referendum question on adult use cannabis will be on the November 2020 ballot, but questions still remain and the language will need to be solidified. “It’ll stipulate you have to be 21 or older to legally possess it. It’ll address some of the social issues we hope to accomplish in the bill. Expedite expungements, things like that.” Coughlin said that marijuana arrests disproportionate affect “people of color three to one” and that some of the problems can be addressed with legislation. Coughlin felt that the voters would say yes. “I think it’ll pass in 2020 and we’ll have to do legislation subsequent to that.”

A caller to the Speaker said that Rutgers coach Greg Schiano’s hiring in an 8 year deal for $32 million was “costing taxpayers an arm and a leg”. The Speaker did not disagree. “In the abstract it is an extraordinary amount of money,” Coughlin said, “but from what I have been reading that is the what the market bears for talented head coaches. Rutgers is going to derive an awful lot of revenue from the Big 10.” He stated further that, “Rutgers is a fine university, one of the top notch in the country.”

A bill was proposed to allow college student athletes to earn compensation for the use of their image. Thinks the athlete’s bill to retain rights to their likeness will pass easily. Understanding the kind of rigorous training athletes go through, they’re in the gym all the time, it is really consuming. While they do get a scholarship and housing and books, what they don’t get is any spending money. They’re college kids, so they need spending money, even though they don’t have very much time to spend it, they could still use it… The notion of compensating them for their likeness—remember, big time schools sell lots of jerseys bearing players and numbers, they’re the ones who turn it into something—it just seems fair that players be able to benefit from their own likeness. I think we’d be the sixteenth state introducing. The NCAA has already passed a rule, we’re going to put it in law, I think it’s fair. Not everybody’s parents have the wherewithal to give their sons or daughters money.”

A caller was taken from a man regarding A1329, described as a bill which “Prohibits treatment, discharge, disposal, application to roadway, or storage of wastewater, wastewater solids, sludge, drill cuttings or other byproducts from natural gas exploration or production using hydraulic fracturing.”

“The only thing that is keeping it from going to the governor’s desk is a vote in the Assembly,” the caller said, “I was wondering if you’d be willing to put it up for a vote and have it in the Assembly Environmental Committee during the lame duck session?”

“That is a bill that we’re looking at that hasn’t necessarily made it to committee or the floor,” Coughlin replied. “We’ll take a look at that, it sounds like a bill that makes an awful lot of sense.”

Another caller asked about the Senior Tax Freeze Program and wanted to know, “Is there a way to get around with less taxes if they can’t afford to keep up?” Coughlin said that the legislature was “constantly trying to find a way to help seniors” and cited some achievements. “We increased the limit last year from $70-$90,000”, and added that, “if we can figure out a way to make it easier or better…. That senior tax freeze is the first time fully funded in a decade, so I’m really proud of that.”

Other bills discussed related to New Jersey veterans. One is to try to get Washington to change policy and to stop taxing federally forgiven student loans. Another measure would guarantee protections for National Guard members and three measures would allow for creation of new license plates to recognize for their service.

A caller asked if Vietnam veterans who were awarded the NJ Distinguished Service Medal would be getting a license plate in the new bill? Coughlin replied, “I don’t believe it is included in the package” but that it was something “we better take a harder look at.”

Another ballot question may be put forward which Coughlin said, “I suspect will pass overwhelmingly out of committee and next November”. It would be proposed constitutional amendment “to make honorably discharged vets who didn’t serve in war or time of emergency eligible for a $250 property tax deduction other veterans receive. “This recognizes the fact that many went and served and were fortunate there was no war or emergency, doesn’t diminish their willingness to serve and do whatever was asked of them,” Coughlin said. “They’re as prepared and as selfless as anybody else.” The Speaker said he expects wide, bipartisan support.

Regarding the deduction, a caller said that it was problematic that the deduction was lost when he had to transfer the ownership of the house to his wife for personal reasons, and the deduction was lost. This is because the deduction is not transferable, held only by the veteran.

With the Lame Duck session ahead, Coughlin said that there were a number of bills to be looked at and spoke about single-use plastic bans. The legislation, which has moved out of the Senate, would “ban single use plastic bags from food services, grocery stores, and also ban paper bags ultimately,” he said. “There’s an implementation period, but it also includes Styrofoam food containers and would make plastic straws available upon request. The idea is to recognize there are little ones who need a straw and seniors and some people with disabilities who really need straws. The idea would be to let them have the straws they need. Nobody likes paper straws, metal straws are becoming more prevalent [but] it creates other issues.” Coughlin said he feels this will see more reusable products coming into use and that it was “driven this is the excessive number of plastic bags. This week I read about a whale that died that found 220lbs of garbage in it. This legislation is designed to get at that and drive people to use the reusable bags. There’s an amendment that would require free distribution for the first two months.” Because certain municipalities have single-use plastic bans but others do not, it creates financial pressures on stores where customers come from different areas. Coughlin said that, as a result, statewide legislation was needed.

Paper bags, he said, would be looked at similarly. “They are not reusable, most people don’t bring back their paper bags and the idea is to try to cut down on the waste stream.”

Speaker Coughlin spoke about a study to look at and make recommendations for providing full-time rail service directly to NYC through NJ Transit Raritan. “Legislators in that district recognize how important that is to the area to growth and development. We know what an economic driver it can be.” He said that the real solution, however, was the Gateway Tunnel Project, which requires funding from the federal government. Coughlin said it was a “big project we desperately need in the north east. Right now only 24 trains an hour can go through there, if we get the tunnel done we can expand that to 48 trains an hour. The money we need has to come from Washington DC.”

Speaker Coughlin praised a bill proposed by Assemblywoman Angela McKnight which would have NJ elementary schools teach cursive handwriting. He said it was a “great idea, congratulations to Angela, a great legislator. The bill provides that kids be taught to learn cursive writing.” He said that research suggests cursive handwriting has cognitive, motor skills benefits to children and that not every life situation will allow for typing.

As the show came a close, Speaker Coughlin extended his congratulations to Victoria Kilpatrick, elected Mayor of Sayreville.

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