Fate of school vouchers, N.J. wineries uncertain after bills died quietly behind the scenes
Chris Megerian | Statehouse Bureau
TRENTON — New Jersey lawmakers raced for the Statehouse exits Wednesday night after passing a state budget plan, trailing dozens of press releases trumpeting their accomplishments as they prepared for their traditional summer break.
But not every issue was neatly wrapped up at the last minute. Even though piles of bills were passed and paraded in the sunlight, others died quietly behind the scenes, in the shadows.
The fate of two such bills, one addressing school vouchers and the other the future of the state's wineries, shows as much about the Statehouse as the bills that went on to become law.
Both issues, largely unnoticed as battles over the budget and public worker benefits hogged the spotlight, ground to a halt after stalling in the Assembly.
Interviews show how the best-laid plans — complete with major endorsements, passionate speeches and backroom arm-twisting — can falter on Trenton's shifting political battleground. That's especially true as lawmakers wrestle over the state budget, a time to cut last-minute deals and settle old scores.
"It’s the best theater in town," said Steven Some, a veteran lobbyist who represents a winery. "When you’re pushing an issue, you’re very much like the director of the play."
The episodes involving vouchers and wineries show how Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-Essex) has struggled to balance competing relationships with the power brokers that greased her political rise and the restless Democrats within her own caucus. And they reveal how controversial cuts to public worker benefits cast a long shadow on the Statehouse, altering the political landscape and shifting unrelated issues off track.
The Opportunity Scholarship Act, which would give corporations tax credits if they donated to a school voucher program, had all the hallmarks of a sure thing. It boasted bipartisan support, and advocates agreed to downsize the proposal to make it palatable for some wary Democrats.
"It looked like it was going to get done," said Derrell Bradford, a supporter and executive director for the nonprofit Better Education for Kids.
But in Trenton, nothing is ever a sure thing, and an intense lobbying effort to push the bill through the Assembly faltered just over a week ago.
"I’m extremely disappointed," said George Norcross, the South Jersey power broker. "This bill certainly would have provided an opportunity for children and parents who are reaching out for change."
Also backing the bill were Essex County Executive Joseph N. DiVincenzo Jr. and Gov. Chris Christie, and Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) had agreed to post it for a vote despite his own misgivings.
But the plan was missing a critical piece: Oliver. Even though she promised Norcross and DiVincenzo — who played key roles in the sweeping coup that made her the Assembly speaker — she would post the bill, she ended up backing out, according to three sources who requested anonymity to discuss private deliberations.
Sources said Oliver was worried about angering members of her caucus who did not support vouchers. It had been about a week since she backed cuts to public worker benefits, leaving some Democrats feeling betrayed. Pushing forward on vouchers could further fracture the party.
"After the pension bill, the speaker and others said there was so much tension and so much acrimony in the Democratic caucus, they thought it would be too much to bring up the Opportunity Scholarship Act," said Rev. Reginald Jackson, head of the Black Ministers Council and a voucher supporter.
Oliver said she still had doubts about the proposal, saying, "Given the shape it’s in, it’s not something I can support."
She declined to discuss private conversations but said, "We don’t conduct business by promising people what is going to happen."
Supporters said they had the votes to get the bill passed but couldn’t get it posted in the Assembly. Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D-Union), the bill’s sponsor, said the issue is now "on life support."
Bradford said advocates will try again to pass the bill after the November election.
"It is unfortunate that pension and benefit reform was more important than education reform," he said. "This is a huge disappointment."
For New Jersey’s wineries, the issue is a ticking time bomb. A federal judge recently declared unconstitutional a state law allowing wineries to sell their wares directly to stores or in on-site tasting rooms.
"Without direct access to the consumer, and without access to sell our wines directly to liquor stores, most wineries in New Jersey will go out of business," said Bob Clark, owner of Chestnut Run Farm, a Salem County winery that produces specialty Asian pear wine.
But a bill to remedy the situation died on the vine Wednesday, the same day lawmakers passed a budget plan. Sources said the issue became a tug of war between Sweeney and Assembly Majority Leader Joseph Cryan (D-Union), who have feuded over cuts to public worker benefits.
Both want to keep tasting rooms open, but Sweeney also wants to allow wineries to ship their wine directly to consumers’ homes. Cryan, whom advocates accuse of being in the liquor lobby’s pocket, wants wineries to work through distributors.
So last week Sweeney committed a legislative faux paux: he gutted Cryan’s bill without his permission, replaced it with his own and pushed it through the Senate. Then he punted it back to the Assembly Wednesday night.
After the Senate session ended that night, Sweeney met in his office with Cryan and Oliver. Once again, Oliver had to make the final call on what to do, and in a heated exchange the Senate president asked her to defy Cryan and post his modified version of the bill, according to three sources with knowledge of the meeting.
Oliver and Cryan have had a frosty relationship that soured further when she pushed cuts to public worker benefits that he bitterly opposed. But that night she sided with Cryan and rebuffed Sweeney, the sources said.
Cryan changed the bill back to his liking, and it now resides in legislative limbo. Like the voucher proposal, advocates expect it to lie dormant until after the November election.
Oliver called the issue a "work in progress." In the meantime, winery tasting rooms risk being shut down.
Clark, for one, walked away from the Statehouse disappointed with how the state does business.
"I find it deeply troubling that when we’re dealing with an issue of this magnitude, lawmakers did not move forward," he said. "The Assembly is willing to put an entire industry in jeopardy."