Novel Social Policies Meet Money Woes in N.J.

Headlines from New Jersey's political scene have stereotypically included the words "scandal," "sex," "corruption" or a combination of all three. But in the final days of 2007, lawmakers made news for different reasons, quietly passing three pieces of novel social legislation that proponents call prescient and critics call preposterous.

Last month the state legislature passed and Gov. Jon Corzine signed into law bills that abolished the death penalty, mandated HIV testing for expectant mothers and newborns, and for the first time anywhere banned sex offenders from using the Internet.

This week the state General Assembly will meet to discuss becoming the first state to formally apologize for slavery.

"New Jersey has become a policy laboratory, passing legislation ahead of the curve and allowing other states to look and see if these laws are working," said Brigid Harrison, a political science professor at New Jersey's Montclair State University.

The ease with which the state has passed this legislation can be attributed to its Democratic legislature, Democratic governor and largely Democratic constituents.

But timing is also important.

"It is the end of the term, and you have a huge lame-duck legislature," Harrison said. "Lots of folks who are leaving were strong legislators who are seeking to make a mark and create a legacy. It's personal and they're willing to take more chances."

Recently, however, there has been a trend in risk taking. The state legalized same-sex unions in 2006 with none of the judicial acrimony seen elsewhere, and was the first state to require steroid testing for high school athletes and ban junk food from public schools.

Much of the state's focus on social policy has been attributed to a steady shift to the left in the past decade, resulting from the influx of both immigrants and wealthy social liberals living in the bedroom suburbs of New York City and Philadelphia. New Jersey's residents are the wealthiest in the country, with a median household income of $61,359, according to the Census Bureau.

It's About the Economy

"I think that we're seeing a population that is becoming socially more liberal in the last decade. We're seeing large numbers of people moving into the state from New York and a large influx of immigrants. There are quite a few people in a small state, and we have to go along to get along; that's the essence of tolerance," said Michael Riccards, executive director of the Hall Institute of Public Policy, a nonpartisan New Jersey think tank.

Critics, however, say that New Jersey's wealth has been squandered, and many of these laws are little more than a smokescreen, obscuring the state's dire fiscal situation. New Jersey has $32 billion in debt, the third largest in the country.

"There has been a certain amount of kismet between the governor and legislative leadership that has allowed them to get a lot done, but there has been plenty they've been unable to accomplish," said Harrison.

"The stem cells initiative failed, paid family leave isn't going to happen. Restructuring of school funding and universal health care have been all but forgotten. Asset monetization," leasing or selling state assets like the New Jersey Turnpike, "is the latest attempt on the table to right the fiscal house of the state in order to allow it to tackle other things."

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