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Will New Jersey Ban Single-Use Plastics? Here’s a Look at its Journey So Far

by Vincent Grassi, Monmouth University Polling Institute Intern

West Long Branch, NJ – According to the Monmouth University Poll, a majority of New Jersey residents claim to support a ban on both plastic bags and straws. They also see ocean pollution caused by plastic products as a serious problem, but many are unaware of the threat posed by microplastics – extremely tiny pieces of plastic used in certain products like cosmetics or caused by the breakdown of larger plastic objects. Although legislation has been proposed to ban certain single-use plastic products, the state legislature has not yet enacted such a change.

The poll finds that a majority of New Jersey residents (65%) would support a ban on single-use plastic bags. The same rings true for plastic straws with a majority (52%) supporting a complete ban. Although the poll also suggests that public support may not be quite as robust as these numbers suggest.  More on that in a bit.

Last year, the state’s General Assembly introduced bill A3267 that would have put a nickel fee per bag on both plastic and paper carryout bags. The bill also called for the Department of Environmental Protection to put forth a public information program on the effects that single-use carryout bags have on the environment, and advocate for the use of reusable carryout bags. However, Governor Phil Murphy vetoed the bill saying that even though the bill was well-intentioned, “the time has come for a more robust and comprehensive method of reducing the number of single-use bags in our State.”

Critics of Governor Murphy’s decision say the fee would have been an important first step in the right direction. Those who supported the Governor’s veto may be pleased with the introduction of bill S2776, which would prohibit plastic carryout bags, polystyrene foam food service products, and single-use plastic straws. Customers would also be charged at least ten cents per paper carryout bag. Those who violate the law would have to pay a fine of $500 for their first offense, up to $1,000 for a second offense and up to $5,000 for subsequent offenses. Introduced in June of last year, the bill is currently pending in the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee. In the meantime, there is a growing list of New Jersey towns that have enacted their own bans on single-use plastic bags.

Gov. Murphy is holding out for a complete ban on single-use plastic bags, but maybe he should have settled for the Assembly bill last year. The Monmouth poll found that support for a “ban” may not be as strong as it first appears. Only 31% of New Jersey residents support a complete single-use plastic bag ban when it is posed against two other options, having customers who request a plastic bag pay a small fee (27% support) or allowing stores to continue to give away plastic bags for free (39% support).

In an effort to reduce the amount of plastic bags and straws that end up in the ocean, the proposed statewide ban highlights the public’s concern regarding ocean pollution. According to Monmouth’s poll, a majority of state residents (64%) believe ocean pollution caused by plastic products is a very serious problem. Most (71%) believe that plastics in the ocean causing injury to marine life is a major problem. Similarly, 60% feel that plastics in the ocean making seafood harmful to eat is also a major problem.

Another consideration in relation to ocean pollution is the issue of microplastics. Extremely tiny pieces of plastic in the ocean, referred to as microplastics, result from the breakdown of larger plastic products or come from certain products like cosmetics. These toxic pollutants pose risks to both ecological and human health. Attention has started to focus not only on the impact that microplastics have on marine life and their habitats, but also on human seafood consumers and drinking water.

In October 2018, the New Jersey state legislature introduced a resolution (ACR198) encouraging all levels of government to work together to clean up plastics from the state’s waters. The resolution touches on the impact of microplastic pollutants stating, “There is evidence that microplastic pollution can move through natural food webs and accumulate in fin fish and shellfish tissues, which means microplastics and associated pollutants have the potential to move into the human food chain.”

Unsurprisingly, some have raised the alarm at the idea of microplastics in drinking water. The World Health Organization does not recommend routine monitoring of microplastics in drinking water right now, however, this is largely due to the limited amount of research on the impacts they have on human health. Lawmakers in Trenton addressed concerns over microplastics in drinking water and introduced bill S3792 in May, which would direct the NJ Department of Environmental Protection to “adopt regulations concerning identification and testing of microplastics in drinking water.” It is currently in the Senate Environment and Energy Committee.

Interestingly, the poll shows nearly half of Garden State residents (45%) say they have never heard about microplastics. Significantly fewer (17%) have heard a great deal about microplastics, 19% have heard some, and 19% have heard only little.

Since the poll shows that a vast majority of New Jersey residents believe ocean pollution is a very serious problem, there is the possibility that support for more rigorous government action could increase. However, there is still a way to go to create an informed public about the challenges posed by plastic in all its different forms.

A Welcome to New Citizens

by Patrick Murray

I was asked to deliver the keynote remarks at a naturalization ceremony this week, where 24 new U.S. citizens took their oaths of allegiance to this country.  These new Americans came here from Brazil, Canada, China, Colombia, Ecuador, Ghana, Guatemala, India, New Zealand, Pakistan, United Kingdom, and Zambia.

I’ve given a lot of speeches and presentations over the years, but this was one of the biggest honors of my life.  During the turbulent times our country is going through right now, it was truly inspiring to witness these new Americans promise to “support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic.”

The urgent need to remember the values of our Constitution was one of the reasons I started the Guardians of the Republic podcast with my friend Ian Kahn (who portrayed George Washington on TURN: Washington’s Spies). And in that spirit, I wanted to share my welcome to those new Americans with you.

Remarks for US Naturalization Ceremony

Washington’s Headquarters Museum

Morristown National Historical Park

September 25, 2019

Welcome, fellow citizens of the United States of America!  It is an honor to be the first to say that to you in person.

Every September, we celebrate Constitution Day to commemorate the signing of the document that would become the foundation of our system of government.  And immigration was one of the issues they debated at the Constitutional Convention.

During this debate, the renowned statesman Benjamin Franklin reportedly said: “When foreigners – after looking about for some other Country in which they can obtain more happiness – give a preference to ours, it is a proof of attachment which ought to excite our confidence and affection.”

Franklin saw people wanting to immigrate to America as validation of the distinctiveness of our new country and a sign of the opportunities that could only be found here.

Indeed, from the very beginning, our founders acknowledged that immigrants were central to building America.

Now, I’m going to give you a little quiz.  It might be a little tougher than the questions on the naturalization test. But here it is.  The first official government holiday – that means a recognized day off – in the United States of America is believed to have been declared right here in Morristown in 1780.  Does anyone know what holiday it was?

It wasn’t the 4th of July.  And it wasn’t Christmas.

It was actually Saint Patrick’s Day – an immigrant’s holiday.  Yes, General George Washington wanted to give his troops a day off after a harsh winter camping just south of where we are sitting right now.  So, in recognition of the many Irish immigrants who were serving in the Continental Army and their connection to the fight for Irish independence, he felt that St. Patrick’s Day was the perfect choice.

After the war, Washington wrote a letter to a friend in New York who was helping new Irish immigrants coming to this country.  This is what he said in that letter:

“The bosom of America is open to receive not only the opulent and respectable Stranger, but the oppressed and persecuted of all Nations and Religions; whom we shall welcome to a participation of all our rights and privileges, if by decency and propriety of conduct they appear to merit the enjoyment.”

What Washington was saying is that America welcomes immigrants from all walks of life.  But with that welcome comes responsibility.

One of your most important responsibilities is to exercise your right to vote.  And you are in luck, New Jersey holds elections for some office or another every single year.  Which means the next one is in six weeks.  You have until October 15th to register to participate in your very first election.  You will be able to choose representatives for state government in the General Assembly as well as a number of local offices.

And I’m going to let you in on a little secret.  The people who serve in these local offices will have much more impact on your day to day life than those who get elected to big statewide offices like Governor and U.S. Senator.  So get out there and do your civic duty this November!

Okay.  So that’s your first job as citizens.  But there is one more special thing about your home state that I want to tell you before I close.

We are fond of saying that America is a nation of immigrants.  And indeed New Jersey is a state of immigrants.  Did you know that over 20 percent of the people who live in New Jersey were not born in this country?  That means that 1 out of every 5 people you meet in the great Garden State are like you – immigrants!

Indeed, 125 years ago, my own ancestors were among the many immigrants who came to these shores. And my family continues to be populated with recent immigrants.

When I was a child, my grandfather would take my brother and me to many of the sites in New Jersey that were crucial to the creation of our country.  I do the same with my children today – whether they like it or not! 

One of the great things about living in New Jersey is that you can stumble across some reminder of the values and the struggles that gave birth to our country every single day.  These places are everywhere in New Jersey.  It is why, 13 years ago, Congress designate much of the state as the Crossroads of the American Revolution National Heritage Area.

All these childhood visits to Revolutionary War sites instilled a very important message in me.  It’s one that I hope is instilled in my own children – and in you as well.  And that message is that this grand story – the story of America with all its high points and low points – is our story too. We may not be able to trace our lineage back to 1776, but we share equally in the story of the creation of America and in everything that makes it what it is today.

I hope you come to feel that too.  Because you are now part of the American story!  And your job is to keep that story going.

And for agreeing to accept that job, I have only one thing to say – Thank you!

Leading Academics Propose New Jersey Legislative Redistricting Reforms

Report calls for increasing the number of independent members and establishing mapmaking criteria

A working group of leading academics and lawyers who have been active in promoting redistricting reform has issued “Improving New Jersey’s Legislative Apportionment Process,” a comprehensive report on reforming the state’s decennial legislative redistricting process.  The group’s key recommendations include:

  • Retain the bipartisan commission structure, ensuring that commissioners appointed by the parties reflect the state’s diversity.
  • Increase the number of independent commissioners from one to three and appoint them at the start of the apportionment process.
  • Create apportionment guidelines that prioritize communities of interest and partisan fairness but avoid formulaic requirements that impinge on the commission’s ability to balance and reconcile competing principles.
  • Increase opportunities for public comment and extend the period for comment.
  • Facilitate informed public comment with disclosure of precinct and voting data, including digital tools to allow all citizens to offer comments in a timely manner.

The working group was formed early this year in response to legislative efforts to amend the current apportionment process, which ultimately faced opposition from good government and civil rights advocates across the political spectrum. The group’s work took on added impetus after last month’s U.S. Supreme Court decision that left solutions to partisan gerrymandering in the hands of the states.

The report was authored by:

Patrick Murray, Director, Monmouth University Polling Institute

Samuel Wang, Director of Princeton Gerrymandering Project, Princeton University

Yurij Rudensky, Redistricting Counsel, Brennan Center for Justice, New York University School of Law

Brigid Callahan Harrison, Professor of Political Science and Law, Montclair State University

Ronald Chen, University Professor and Distinguished Professor of Law, Rutgers University Law School

Ben Williams, Legal Analyst, Princeton Gerrymandering Project, Princeton University

The report recommends maintaining the current bipartisan commission structure, but calls for expanding the number of independent members appointed by the Chief Justice and making those members a part of the process from the outset.  Having a panel of arbiters will help ensure that agreed-upon rules are applied consistently and should result in a more deliberative process. This would be a marked improvement over the current dynamic where each party vies to meet the preferences of a single “tie-breaker.”  The proposed reforms also require the commission to solicit public input over an expanded time period. This will require slightly shifting the state’s primary election calendar in redistricting years, similar to how it is handled in Virginia, which also holds its legislative elections in odd-numbered years.

The report also proposes criteria to guide the commission’s deliberations, emphasizing communities of interest and partisan fairness, while also respecting municipal boundaries – a touchstone in the state’s political culture.  Additionally, the proposal calls for codifying widely accepted standards of equal population and racial representation in the state constitution.

“We have proposed a bold, yet common sense approach to improving the current system. It increases public participation in the process while also addressing concerns raised by legislators who proposed changes last year. Under this plan, the legislative map’s outcome will not hinge on the priorities of a single independent member,” said Murray of Monmouth University.

“New Jersey was a leader in establishing one of the first redistricting commissions. Now that a dozen other states have adopted commissions, we can learn from their experience. If we implement those lessons, we can give all groups and parties a fair shot at representation in Trenton,” said Wang of Princeton University.

“This proposal fuses national best-practices with New Jersey values. The much needed renovation would address the known flaws of the current process while promoting fairness and establishing a system that is community driven and accountable to voters,” said Rudensky of New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice.

“Ensuring that New Jersey’s legislature is representative of its citizens begins with improving our redistricting process, so that our redistricting commission is representative of New Jersey’s diversity, and the redistricting process provides for transparency and facilitates public participation,” said Harrison of Montclair State University.

“Fair redistricting will not be achieved through indiscriminate use of formulas or algorithms, but will require a broad-based approach that includes broad and effective public input and the ability to reconcile often competing redistricting principles,” said Chen of Rutgers University, the former New Jersey Public Advocate.

“In recent decades, states have enacted bold reforms to make their redistricting processes transparent and open to all. Adopting the best practices from those systems would bring New Jersey to the forefront of the national movement for fair districts,” said Williams of Princeton University.

Click here for the full Improving New Jersey’s Legislative Apportionment Process report.