5 big things N.J. lawmakers are frantically trying to squeeze in

Brent Johnson and Susan K. Livio, NJ Advance Media for NJ.com

TRENTON — In the frantic final days of the New Jersey Legislature's two-year legislative session, state lawmakers say they expect to approve measures that will ask voters to change how public pensions are funded and election districts are drawn.

Other major initiatives close to the finish line include raising the age of tobacco sales from 19 to 21, and creating a retirement plan for employees at small businesses.

But the most politically contentious measure of the post-election season — asking voters to change the state constitution to allow two casinos in north Jersey — is the subject of a battle between the top two legislative leaders.

As he clock ticks toward the end of the session at noon Tuesday, here are 5 big things Democratic leaders are pushing: 

1. North Jersey casinos

There are competing plans over a referendum asking voters to allow casinos outside Atlantic City. 

State Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) and state Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto (D-Hudson) are at odds over who should be allowed to operate the casinos. The Senate wants both of the new owners to already hold licenses in Atlantic City, which is still reeling from bankruptcies and casinos closures. The Assembly wants to allow a company from outside Atlantic City the chance to own one of the new halls.

"This would not preclude Atlantic City (casino owners) from (vying) for the second casino," Prieto said. But he added that an Atlantic City casino owner may not want to build the kind of "entertainment destination" that could help north Jersey. 

The competing bills are scheduled for public hearings Thursday morning.

Prieto said he's put aside other issues he had with Sweeney's proposal to get to this point and that it's time for Sweeney to be more flexible — even if they don't reach a deal after the legislative session ends at noon on Tuesday.

"We could do this in February if we can come to an agreement," he said. 

Sweeney said he remained hopeful a deal could be struck soon.

"I continue to work with leaders in the Senate and the Assembly to find a workable solution to get the casino expansion question on the ballot next year," Sweeney said in a statement Wednesday. "We want a plan that serves the needs of the entire state."

In order for the question to be placed on the ballot, the houses must sign off on one plan. To do so, lawmakers need to pass the plan either by simple majorities in two consecutive legislative sessions or by three-fifths majorities in one session.

With the current legislative session ending Tuesday, it's more likely they'll have to do it with one vote in the next session, even though top lawmakers say getting three-fifths majorities would be a challenge.

2. Pension payments 

There is wide Democratic support for a proposed constitutional amendment (SCR184) to ask voters whether to force the state to make increasing payments into the public worker pension system, which is $40 billion short of what is expected to be paid in the future. 

It's a guarantee public workers had thought they secured under a 2011 pension reform law that committed the state to gradually paying more over seven years until it was making the full contribution recommended by actuaries. But the state Supreme Court ruled in June that the Legislature couldn't be bound in that way.

3. Re-mapping legislative districts 

There is also Democratic support for a ballot question (SCR188/ACR4) that would require at least 10 of New Jersey's legislative districts be "competitive" and that the remaining 30 districts be divided evenly by political party.

A district would be considered "competitive" based on how each political party performed in the previous decade in elections for president, U.S. Senate, and governor.

Republicans argue the plan could allow Democrats to tighten their control of the Legislature, holding onto it for decades.

4. Retirement savings plans for employees of small businesses

The "Secure Choice" retirement savings program is also up for final legislative passage Thursday in the Senate — a bill Sweeney sponsored and counts among his top priorities. 

The bill (A4275) requires employers with no more than 100 employees to arrange enrollment and payroll deductions that would go into an account managed by a state-selected company.

5. Raising the legal age to buy cigarettes

The Assembly's appropriations committee is scheduled to consider a bill raising the legal age to buy tobacco or vaping products from 19 to 21. If it passes, the bill would go to the full Assembly Monday for a final vote, said Assembly sponsor Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-Bergen).

Vendors who sell to young adults under 21 would pay $500 for the first offense and $1,000 for subsequent offenses, according to the bill. Retailers like convenience stores oppose the bill, which would cost the state about $19 million in sales tax revenue in the first full year.

Huttle said she is confident lawmakers will vote yes. "It has bi-partisan support because they've put health care first. We can get it done."