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."

State Sen. Leonard Lance, a Republican and minority leader, called much of the Democrats' agenda a "whitewash" that would have little reverberations outside the state.

"The issues that are most important to me, that are important to all of our state's taxpayers are fiscal. The issues don't get the headlines or the national attention, but we have burgeoning state death in New Jersey and that has caused great trouble in the past and will in the future," Lance said.

In July 2006, Corzine shut down the government over a budget impass with the legislature.

Some have already begun to raise questions about the legality and practicality of barring sex offenders -- even those who crimes did not involve using the Internet – from cyberspace.

"The sex offender law is going to be extremely difficult to enforce, and it is unclear if it is even constitutional. But there was little debate on either of these issues," said Riccards of the Hall Institute.

Lance called the HIV and sex offender laws "bipartisan" and "essential to our children's well being," but along with many of his Republican colleagues voted against repeal of the death penalty.

Will Other States Follow N.J.'s Lead?

On Dec. 17, Corzine signed a bill repealing the state's death penalty, the first state to abolish capital punishment in a generation.

"Today New Jersey is truly evolving," he said at the bill signing. "I believe society first must determine if its endorsement of violence begets violence, and if violence undermines our commitment to the sanctity of life. To these questions, I answer yes."

The governor also said he believed that other states would follow New Jersey's lead, seeing capital punishment as both an immoral and expensive alternative to life in prison.

Lance disagreed. "I can't imagine such bans are the way of the future nationally. I'd imagine federalism will prevail. I don't think it's inevitable that the death penalty will be repealed in every state."

Aside from Democratic control of the state government, pundits have credited the relationship between Corzine and New Jersey Senate President Richard Codey as a factor in passing the social legislation.

Following an automobile accident in April that left Corzine hospitalized for two weeks, Codey stepped in as acting governor.

The two men have since worked together closely, with Codey personally introducing both the bills on HIV testing for expectant mothers and newborns, and barring sex offenders from the Web.

Codey is convinced that New Jersey is making history, and other states are soon to follow in its footsteps.

"We've been flooded with phone calls on the HIV and sex predator laws from legislators from around the country," Codey said. "Every day we're praised with doing away with the death penalty."

More than progressive social policy, or even the budget crisis, Codey fears corruption will always be the first thing associated with the Garden State's politicians.

"A lot of what we've accomplished has been hidden behind the corruption issue. Corruption is still here, but at least fewer of our guys have been arrested than the guys on the Cincinnati Bengals," he said.