Marijuana, Transportation Woes, Governor’s Race

NorthStar Strategies TrueNorth Insights

Scutari Intro’s Marijuana Legalization Bill

State Senator Nick Scutari has introduced legislation to legalize marijuana. The proposal to allow New Jersey residents 21 years and older to possess up to one ounce of marijuana for recreational use includes tax and regulatory provisions. Legislation sponsored by Scutari in 2010 legalized possession of marijuana for medicinal purposes.

While the bill has no chance while Chris Christie remains in office, the bill introduction is seen as laying the groundwork for enactment by the next governor. The major candidates on the Democratic side all favor legalization; main candidates on the GOP support decriminalization but fall short of supporting legalization. According to a 2015 Eagleton poll, a majority of New Jerseyans support legalization. As of March, eight other states had legalized marijuana for recreational purposes, according to Governing magazine.

In a State with the highest-in-the-nation property taxes, a chronically underfunded pension system and a transit system starved for adequate capital and operating funds, the promise of $300 million in annual sales tax revenue from legalization (according to our friend Bill Caruso at New Jersey United for Marijuana Reform) is enticing. Additional benefits from a criminal justice reform standpoint are also cited.

Sorting through the public policy details will be complicated, and many questions remain, including:

  • How and at what levels marijuana would be taxed?
  • Who would benefit from tax proceeds – schools? NJ TRANSIT? addiction treatment facilities?
  • How and by whom will marijuana be regulated?
  • What role will the Feds play? Marijuana is classified as a Schedule 1 dangerous controlled substance at the federal level and US Attorney General Jeff Sessions won’t be rolling that back.

What is clear is that cannabis reform is likely to be one of the predominant policy issues facing the Legislature and our next governor. We’re watching this one closely…

Stopped in its Tracks

The region’s transit network and those who use and run it have been taking it on the chin recently. Recent derailments have placed renewed focus on repairing and rehabilitating crumbling tracks and stations. Here’s our take on recent headlines.

Portal Bridge Contract Approved

NJ TRANSIT’s Board of Directors approved a $14.6 million construction contract to begin the Portal North Bridge project. The project will remove the 100-year old moveable bridge and replace it with a high-level fixed span bridge. The replacement is critical to the Gateway Program which also includes the new Hudson River tunnel. As we have written previously, Gateway is a program of national significance and is critically important to the region’s economy and mobility.

Chao Prioritizes Gateway

The US Secretary of Transportation testified at a recent Senate committee meeting that the Gateway program is “an absolute priority” for the Trump administration. Her statement came in response to comments by our own Senator Cory Booker articulating the fragility of our infrastructure and calling for immediate investment to prevent a “traffic Armageddon” for the entire region if existing assets fail. We’re going to need more than soothing words from the Secretary, however, as the Trump administration’s inaugural budget slashes transit grant funding and could jeopardize Gateway.

NJ TRANSIT’s On-time Performance Plummets

This is clearly NOT news to anyone who – like us – has been stuck on a delayed train. The beleaguered transit agency saw its on-time performance crater after two recent derailments at New York Penn. We’ve known and worked with NJ TRANSIT’s leadership for a long time and feel for them – they’re trying to keep the buses and trains running but aren’t being given the resources they need. Unfortunately, this is what happens when your capital and operating needs get choked to a trickle. Don’t expect performance to improve this Summer, as Amtrak is planning 44 days of track outages to make needed track repairs. We’re advising clients and friends to plan their weekend travel, daily commutes, and vacations accordingly to account for the additional time needed to get to and from New York.

The Future of NY Penn Station

Governors Christie and Cuomo called for a private operator to assume control of Penn Station operations and repairs from Amtrak. This is an easy stance for the two governors to take given that NJ TRANSIT and Long Island Railroad are the predominant users of the station despite Amtrak’s ownership.

At the same time, Cuomo is in discussions with Amtrak about routing Amtrak service to Manhattan’s Grand Central Station. No concrete plans are in place yet, but the suggestion alone is significant. Amtrak used Grand Central until 1991 when it moved across town to Penn Station. Amtrak’s potential return to Grand Central is another response to recent derailments at Penn Station and track outages scheduled for this Summer to make long overdue repairs.

Lastly, Governor Cuomo wrote to President Trump requesting “emergency” assistance for Penn Station. The letter calls for a range of supports and also reiterates Cuomo and Christie’s recent call for the privatization of operations at the station.

Governor’s Race Round-up

New Jersey’s June 6 Primary Election is one week away and the candidates are making their final pitches after a quick succession of debates in recent weeks.

Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno and Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli faced off in two debates where much of the discussion focused on taxes and how each is NOT like current Governor Chris Christie. Both candidates called for tax restructuring, with Ciattarelli offering a 5-point plan to re-calibrate taxes and Guadagno calling for audits of various state agencies and functions, including transit.

The Democrats had their fun as well, with two debates that pitted three underdogs against front-runner Phil Murphy. The second debate was especially contentious, with Assemblyman John Wisniewski, Senator Ray Lesniak and former Treasury official Jim Johnson attacking the positions and past statements of Murphy.

Murphy continues to have a significant lead and benefitted from the endorsements of two former Vice Presidents. Al Gore called Murphy the best candidate to make New Jersey a leader in “solving the climate crisis.” In making his pitch for Murphy, Joe Biden called the contest “the single most important race in the country” and a referendum on President Trump.

Murphy and Ciattarelli each received the endorsement from the Star Ledger for their respective party’s nomination.