New Session Sees Movement on Affordable Housing Policy – After an unsuccessful attempt to push through affordable housing reform in the 2022-2023 lame duck session, legislators have introduced an eight-bill package to meet the need for over 200,000 additional units of affordable housing in the state. All eight bills were approved by the Senate Community and Urban Affairs Committee, and many face review now in the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee. The package comprises the following bills:
- S50 abolishes the defunct Council on Affordable Housing, establishes a new process and deadline for municipalities to calculate the number of affordable units they must provide based on the Mount Laurel doctrine, and appropriates $16 million in funding.
- S1422 allows affordable housing developers to deduct a portion of their construction costs from their gross income and corporate business tax bills.
- S1484 exempts builders of 100% affordable housing from the NJ sales tax.
- S2312 allows affordable housing projects supported by state or municipal housing trust funds to make payments in lieu of taxation.
- S1430 reserves some state rental assistance funds for homeowners to meet mortgage, property tax, and insurance costs.
- S1415 allows for-profit and nonprofit affordable housing entities to join in joint insurance funds, making insurance more affordable.
- S2309 allows a municipality to delegate to a municipal clerk the task of writing a statement in support of an affordable housing project in order to streamline the process.
- S1446 expands eligibility for the first-time home buyer down payment assistance loan program and increases the maximum loan amount.
Legislators Introduce Revised ‘Freedom to Read Act’ to Counter Book Bans in Schools – Sen. Andrew Zwicker, motivated by targeted harassment of a high school librarian in his district, introduced a revision of the Freedom to Read Act on Jan. 25 with Sen. Teresa Ruiz, which was originally introduced last session. The bill responds to campaigns to remove certain books from schools, both nationwide and in NJ, as well as prevent harassment of school librarians. The proposed legislation would direct local boards of education to adopt library curation policies based on a model policy established by the state Department of Education. The guidelines would dictate that only those with a ‘vested interest’ would be allowed to request a book’s removal; books should not be removed based on the origin, background, or views of the authors; and librarians are protected from lawsuits for doing their jobs and may sue in response to harassment. The bill has the support of the New Jersey Library Association, the New Jersey School Library Association, and the New Jersey Education Association.
Transportation and the Environment
NJ Transit to Impose 15% Bus and Rail Fare Hikes to Meet Budget Deficit – NJ Transit announced on Jan. 24 15% fare increases for bus and rail riders by July of this year in order to meet a $100 million budget deficit. The deficit is calculated assuming Gov. Murphy will not increase the aid budget for the transit agency. The fare hikes would be the first in a decade, but the plan entails a 3% annual increase going forward. Public hearings will be held March 4-8, and the agency will also receive public comments via online form, email, and regular post through March 8.
Board of Public Utilities Approves Two Offshore Wind Projects – The Board of Public Utilities approved two new offshore wind developments to be built over 40 miles off the coast of Ocean County, NJ. The winning projects from Attentive Energy and Leading Light Wind will generate 3,742 megawatts of energy, enough to power 1.8 million homes and to advance Gov. Murphy’s goal of developing 11,000 megawatts of offshore wind energy by 2040. These new contracts will cost ratepayers more than the recently canceled one with the developer Ørsted, as these agreements include an inflation adjustment clause which may raise or lower costs by 15% based on market conditions at the time when the federal government approves the necessary permits. The projects aim to begin operation in 2031.
NJ Transit Cancels Meadowlands Power Plant Plans, Redirects Funding – NJ Transit announced on Jan. 26 that it will cancel its TransitGrid plan, which entailed the construction of a natural gas power plant in the Meadowlands – wetlands in northeastern NJ – to ensure the agency’s trains and light rails could continue running in the event of a widespread power outage. The agency determined that PSE&G upgrades over the last several years have made this project unnecessary, so it will redirect its $500 million to other transit resiliency plans, including replacing the Raritan River Bridge and train yard projects in New Brunswick and Hoboken.
Senate Committee Advances Bill to Allow Digital Driver’s Licenses and IDs – The Senate Transportation Committee unanimously approved S1297, a measure which would allow residents to receive and use digital driver’s licenses and identification cards. As of March, the state Motor Vehicle Commission issues digital motor vehicle registrations upon renewal. Eleven states offer digital driver’s licenses and identification cards, and 14 others – including NJ – are considering enacting similar policies.