N.J. lawmakers consider measures on pension contributions, boosting buying age for tobacco products

Dustin Racioppi and Salvador Rizzo, NorthJersey.com

Lawmakers moved Thursday to raise the age to buy a pack of cigarettes to the same as that for a six-pack of beer and worked to amend the constitution to require public employee pension fund payments.

With less than a month before a deadline to act, more than a dozen legislative committees met to consider nearly 150 bills or resolutions, some of which had languished in Trenton since the legislative session began in January 2014 while others were introduced and put on the fast track through the Legislature.

The proposals covered a range of topics: Allowing sales of hemp, guarding child protection workers, establishing a business advisory council to study economic policy and a resolution urging Congress to enact the so-called Zadroga Act extending medical treatment and compensation for Sept. 11 first responders.

But of all the legislation flying through the State House, perhaps two pieces had the potential to have a broad impact in New Jersey: the constitutional amendment on the pension issue and the increased age to buy tobacco products.

The resolution by Senate President Stephen Sweeney to constitutionally require the state make its pension fund payments quarterly had Governor Christie and Republican lawmakers on the offensive Thursday. Moments before Sweeney held a news conference on the legislation, Christie’s office sent a mass email criticizing the plan as a “public sector union giveaway,” along with a video clip of Christie panning the proposal.

Before that, the Republican leader in the Assembly, Jon Bramnick, switched topics on a conference call with reporters to express his disapproval of the plan, saying it would put an “absolutely guaranteed tax hike into the constitution.”

The process to amend the constitution requires either supermajority approval in one legislative session, which Democrats who control the Legislature do not have, or simple majority approval, which they do have, in two consecutive sessions before the amendment is put to voters. The current session ends Jan. 11 and a new, two-year session begins the following day.

Sweeney said changing the constitution was the only option left to save the pension system from a financial collapse expected within the next decade. Sweeney, who is preparing to run for governor to succeed Christie in 2018, said he expects the pension amendment will go before voters on the November 2016 ballot.'

Christie refuses to fund a 2011 law he signed that committed billions of dollars toward restoring the health of the state pension funds, which are facing $40 billion in unfunded liabilities, Sweeney added. Although the state Supreme Court allowed Christie to cut those payments, it also urged him and lawmakers to find another way to cover the state's mounting pension costs, Sweeney said.

“Putting this on the ballot puts New Jersey's financial house in order," Sweeney said.

Enshrining the pension payments in the constitution would limit lawmakers' and the governor's power to shape the yearly state budget. Christie, for example, balanced this year's $33.8 billion budget largely by reducing the state's pension payment from $3.1 billion to $1.3 billion. If voters approve Sweeney's amendment, the state would not be able to cut those payments so easily and could be forced to raise taxes or cut deeply from other services to make up the difference.

Sweeney’s proposal passed the budget panel by a vote of 8 to 5, with no Republican support, sending it to the full Senate, whose next voting session is scheduled for the last day of the session.

Earlier on Thursday, an Assembly panel approved raising the minimum age to purchase cigarettes and other tobacco products – including electronic smoking devices – from 19 to 21.

While the bill is focused on public health and preventing young adults from taking up tobacco, it would likely come at a financial cost if approved. The state stands to lose $19 million a year in taxes, according to an estimate by the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services. But lawmakers said the long-term payoff is in the savings in health-care costs, and the legislation would “begin a change in the culture of our youth,” said sponsor Valerie Vainieri Huttle, D-Englewood. Ninety-five percent of all adult smokers start before the age of 21, according to the Institute of Medicine.

There has been a movement nationwide to raise the tobacco purchasing age to 21. New York City became the first major city to do so in 2013. Cleveland and Kansas City are the most recent large cities to raise the age to 21, said Dr. Robert Crane, founder and president of the Preventing Tobacco Addiction Foundation.

If the bill is signed by Governor Christie, New Jersey would become the first state in the continental U.S. to pass a statewide law setting the minimum purchasing age at 21. Hawaii raised the age earlier this year.

With the panel’s approval, the bill now heads to the full Assembly for a vote. The Senate passed its version of the bill in June.