Another busy week under the golden dome (yes, lawmakers really were under the golden dome as they returned for in-person voting on Monday) as we saw a budget extension bill and a new health benefits reform bill considered this week.
Signed Into Law by the Governor This Week
On Tuesday, June 30th, Governor Murphy signed into law a supplemental three-month spending plan (S-20/A-3) to help the state meet its spending obligations through the extended Fiscal Year 2020, which, under the legislation that previously authorized the extension of the current fiscal year, now ends September 30th. (New Jersey was the only state to take the extraordinary step of extending its Fiscal year beyond the normal closing date of June 30th as a result of the economic fallout from COVID-19). The $7.632 billion spending plan signed by the Governor is relatively unchanged from the proposal put forth in the May 22 budget update to the Legislature. It does not include nearly $850 million in new spending proposed in the Governor’s February budget message, defers a number of significant payments (including the September 22nd school aid payment into October), does not include any new revenue raisers, and authorizes the de-appropriation of nearly $1.2 billion in funds enacted in the FY 2020 Appropriations Act. The de-appropriation of the list of amounts unexpended as of June 30, 2020, will take effect within five days unless the Joint Budget Oversight Committee (JBOC) rejects the list. This supplemental appropriations bill continues to implement the school funding formula designed in partnership with the Legislature without any additional funding over FY 2020; delays the September 22nd school aid payment into October; and defers the September school choice payments. The Legislature must now work on crafting a nine month budget for Fiscal Year 2021, which will run through October 1, 2020 through June 30, 2021. In the words of Assembly Budget Chair Pintor Marin, “This is just the beginning of what is to be a very long summer.”
On Wednesday, July 1st, Governor Murphy signed into law a bill ensuring that individuals attending school-sponsored graduation exercises between July 1, 2020 and August 31, 2020, and who have graduated from the school in the immediately preceding school year will, for purposes of any insurance coverages afforded the school’s registered and enrolled student population beginning July 1, 2020, be considered included in the enrolled and registered student population while attending the graduation exercises. As A-4227 was originally drafted, the insurance coverage was extended through July 31st. This bill was amended at the Committee level. Once several of our school building leaders alerted us that some of your graduations were scheduled for August, NJPSA was able to work with the bill sponsors and have the bill amended to extend the timeline out to the end of August. This act takes effect immediately.
On Wednesday, July 1st, Governor Murphy held a public bill signing in front of a small, socially-distanced group of supporters at Union High School in Union Township. Under the bill the Governor signed, SEHBP members will have access to three plans for medical and prescription benefits coverage beginning on January 1, 2021. The three plans will be the New Jersey Educators Health Plan; the SEHBP NJ Direct 10 plan as adopted and implemented by the School Employees’ Health Benefits Commission for plan year 2020; and the SEHBP NJ Direct 15 plan as adopted and implemented by the School Employees’ Health Benefits Commission for plan year 2020. Beginning in July 2021, a fourth plan — the Garden State Health Plan — will also become available. This option seeks to generate additional savings by only covering visits to New Jersey-based doctors and facilities, in exchange for lower premiums, a situation that might raise concerns for residents in some regions that border other states. School districts that do not participate in the state-run benefits program are required to offer comparable plans, unless they already have low-cost options available.
The plan answers the NJEA’s call for relief from Chapter 78, a 2011 law that had required SEHBP members pay anywhere from 3% to 35% of health insurance premiums, depending on their salary and plan, sometimes resulting in members seeing less money from their paychecks when they got a raise, and driving qualified professionals from the field.
Under the bill signed Wednesday, costs are tied to salary. Options range from 1.7% for a single worker or 3.3% for the family of an employee earning $40,000 or less to 3.6% for an individual and 7.2% for a family with a salary of $100,000 or higher. Sponsors suggest the plan will save school districts $640 million a year, with another $404 million in savings for teachers and $30 million for the state. The nonpartisan Office of Legislative Service says actual savings could vary and will depend on how many teachers pick one of the less-generous plans.
On the Governor’s Desk
A-631/S-993 This bill provides to non-teaching employees of local, county or regional school districts, boards or commissions the right to submit to binding arbitration any dispute regarding whether there is just cause for a disciplinary action, including, but not limited to, reprimands, withholding of increments, termination, non-renewal, expiration or lapse of an employment contract or term, or lack of continuation of employment, irrespective of the reason for the employer’s action or failure to act, and irrespective of any contractual or negotiated provision or lack thereof. The bill places the burden of proof in the arbitration on the employer. This bill was sent to the Governor on June 29th, 2020 where it awaits his action.
Passed by the Senate, Pending in the General Assembly
On June 29th, the State Senate voted (35-3) to pass S-2573. Under the bill, the State School Nurse Consultant would work with school districts and school nurses to facilitate best practices in school nursing by advancing comprehensive school health services to address the health and wellness of all students throughout the State. The bill requires the Commissioner of Education to appoint the State School Nurse Consultant. The person appointed to the position is required to be a New Jersey certified school nurse who holds a master’s degree and has demonstrated higher-level leadership with recent school nursing experience. Once appointed, the State School Nurse Consultant would be required to collaborate with the Department of Health (DOH), other State agencies, and associated stakeholders in executing the duties of the position. The bill requires the person to be a New Jersey certified school nurse who holds a master’s degree and has demonstrated higher-level leadership with recent school nursing experience. NJPSA applauded the introduction of this long overdue legislation. The statement we shared with the Senate Education Committee can be read here. The bill now awaits action by the lower house.
Passed by the General Assembly, Pending in Senate
On Monday June 29th, the General Assembly unanimously passed A-4006, a bill that recognizes the disruption to the NJQSAC review schedule caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and seeks to postpone NJQSAC reviews scheduled for the 2019-2020 school year that were not completed because of COVID-19 school closures, or those scheduled for the 2020-2021 school year. These reviews will be rescheduled for the 2021-2022 school year. The bill further stipulates that all school districts that are not subject to the bill’s provisions will continue to be monitored according to their regular three-year schedule. The postponements permitted under this bill will not disrupt the schedule for any other school district’s comprehensive review. This bill has now been referred to the Senate Education Committee where it awaits a hearing.
On Monday June 29th, the General Assembly unanimously passed ACR-171, which petitions the federal government to take such action as is necessary to ensure that all students have equitable access to online instruction in the event of an extension of the public health-related school closure, or another closure in the future. NJPSA initiated this legislative action by meeting with the bill sponsors on this issue.
The issue of equitable access to technology and the internet has certainly taken center-stage with the closure of schools caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. During a hearing earlier this month, the Commissioner of the NJDOE indicated that the number of students without access to a digital device and/or the internet remains as of today at 89,000 families. We recognize the strong efforts that have been made, but acknowledge that far too many students still do not have access to the critical lifeline to their learning in a remote setting and that must end. Although Congress has passed the CARES Act to provide some funding to districts based upon their Title I eligibility status, it will not be enough to cover all these new costs. Forty-one New Jersey districts will not receive CARES Act funding at all. The HEROES Act, most recently passed by the House, only provided $1.5 billion for this purpose, and the US Senate has indicated it will not consider the HEROES Act at all, and will instead present its own proposal sometime later this summer. Absent an additional round of federal emergency response funding that dedicates monies to expanding access to online instruction for economically disadvantaged students, these students will continue to fall further behind their classmates, thereby prolonging the educational disparities that result from the outbreak of COVID-19. As a model for this funding, the “Emergency Educational Connections Act of 2020,” pending before Congress as H.R.6563, would appropriate $2 billion to the federal E-Rate Program for schools and libraries to purchase Wi-fi hotspots, connected devices (e.g., laptops, tablets, etc.), and other equipment necessary for students and staff members to access online instruction during the COVID-19 public health emergency. This Concurrent Resolution has now been referred to the Senate Education Committee.
The Legislative Calendar tends to slow down in the month of July. So far, that looks to be the case for this year. However, please be assured that your NJPSA Government Relations team will continue to monitor all Legislative action and weigh in on all of the bills that impact you, your students, staff and buildings. If you have any questions about any of the bills acted upon this week, or any others, please do not hesitate to contact Director of Government Relations Debbie Bradley @ firstname.lastname@example.org and/or Assistant Director of Government Relations Jennie Lamon @ email@example.com at any time. Please stay safe and healthy, and have a Happy Fourth of July!