Airbnb, vaping bills advance in N.J. Legislature

Nicholas Pugliese, NorthJersey.com

An Assembly tourism panel advanced a pair of bills Monday that would impose new taxes and regulations on short-term housing rentals such as those provided through the online marketplaces Airbnb and FlipKey.

More than a dozen other legislative committees also considered measures covering topics ranging from college fees and vaping to psychiatric beds and a designer drug known as “flakka.”

Airbnb is the most prominent of numerous online services that allow people to rent out a room in their home or their entire residence to tourists, business people and other travelers on a short-term basis. Advocates say the services gives property owners a form of supplemental income while also expanding lodging options available to travelers.

Critics of the services, however, say that the short-term-rental industry is hurting hotels and the housing market, and officials in more than a dozen municipalities in North Jersey have moved since July to restrict short-term rentals over concerns that they were eroding the quality of life in some neighborhoods.

More than 6,000 New Jersey residents hosted 257,000 guests using Airbnb in 2016, a press secretary for the company said Monday, and 325,000 residents used the service to travel domestically and abroad.

A bill sponsored by Assemblywomen Valerie Vainieri Huttle, D-Englewood, and Annette Quijano, D-Union, would impose the same sales and use taxes on short-term rentals as imposed on other hotels and motels in the state.

Peter Schottenfels, a press secretary for Airbnb, testified in favor of the legislationMonday. He said the company has “voluntary collection agreements” with more than 230 jurisdictions around the world, including Pennsylvania, Connecticut and Jersey City, and that the bill would have generated $6 million in state and local taxes in New Jersey had it been in effect in 2016.

The Assembly Tourism, Gaming and the Arts Committee approved the bill Monday by a 5-2 vote.

separate bill sponsored by Huttle goes further and seeks to establish a statewide regulatory framework for short-term rentals where none currently exists. It would codify that municipalities are authorized to prohibit such rentals and would require anyone who wants to offer a short-term rental to first register with their municipality, among other restrictions.

“The current practices of short-term rental businesses lack the necessary safety precautions for our municipalities,” Huttle said in a statement after the same Assembly panel voted unanimously to advance the bill.

Schottenfels, on the other hand, testified that the bill would “usurp local control by imposing a top-down solution” and called it “a solution in search of a problem.”

Senate versions of the bills have not been introduced.

Vaping

An Assembly health panel voted 7-2 with two abstentions to advance a bill that would ban the sale of flavored e-cigarettes except for tobacco, clove and menthol flavors.

The legislation, which advanced out of a Senate committee in May, has pitted anti-smoking advocates, who say that many flavored electronic smoking products are targeted at children, against vaping enthusiasts, who say that their habit had enabled them to quit smoking tobacco cigarettes while still getting a nicotine hit.

Current law prohibits the sale or distribution of cigarettes that have a characterizing flavor other than tobacco, clove, or menthol, but that prohibition does not apply to electronic smoking devices, cartridges or other components, including liquid refills, according to the bill’s sponsors.

College fees

The Assembly Higher Education Committee advanced a measure that seeks to add transparency to how public and for-profit degree-granting institutions in New Jersey determine their mandatory student fees.

The bill would also require all colleges and universities in the state to provide a financial aid “shopping sheet” to each prospective student as part of its financial aid process. The sheet would include information about graduation rates, costs and expected debt.

A Senate version of the bill, which is based on recommendations from the state comptroller in a 2016 report, passed unanimously in the Senate in May.

Open space

A Senate environment panel voted to advance a bill that would appropriate $59.5 million to the state Department of Environmental Protection to help fund the acquisition or development of land for recreation and preservation, including as part of the state’s Blue Acres program.

The money comes from constitutionally dedicated corporation business tax revenues, an arrangement that state voters approved in a 2014 referendum. Numerous municipalities, historical sites and programs in North Jersey stand to benefit from the latest round of funding.

An Assembly version of the bill has yet to receive a hearing in committee.

Psychiatric treatment beds

The Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee advanced a bill that would eliminate the lengthy, state-controlled process by which health care facilities can obtain approval to develop treatment beds for patients with both a psychiatric and a substance use disorder.

Until this month, the state had not issued what is known as a “certificate of need call” for adult acute care psychiatric beds in more than a decade. Advocates have said a lack of such beds has stymied the state’s efforts to respond to a growing epidemic of opioid and heroin use.

The bill is still in committee in the Assembly.

Medication-assisted substance abuse treatment

A Senate health panel voted unanimously to advance a bill that would prohibit residential substance abuse treatment facilities and after-care facilities, including sober living homes and halfway houses, from denying admission to patients because they are also receiving medication-assisted treatment for a substance use disorder.

An Assembly version of the bill has yet to be introduced.

Transportation projects

The Senate Transportation Committee advanced a measure that would require the state Department of Transportation to compensate local governments for any delay damages they incurred when many transportation projects were temporary put on hold last summer during a standoff between Christie and the Legislature over funding for the Transportation Trust Fund.

The bill was approved by the Assembly in May by a vote of 53-13 with eight abstentions.

'Flakka'

The possession or sale of the designer drug known as “flakka” or “flocka” would be criminalized under a bill advanced by the Assembly Law and Public Safety Committee. The substance is related to “bath salts” and frequently marketed as a legal alternative to cocaine, methamphetamine and ecstasy, according to the bill.

The measure is awaiting a committee hearing in the Senate.