As a high schooler in Howell Township in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Melanie Willoughby had her first taste of politics, lobbying the principal on behalf of the student body to change the dress code and extend school breaks. Finding that she liked politics, she went on to study history as part of the first class of women at Rutgers College (Class of 1976) and became Rutgers’ first woman student government president (there was not another for 17 years).
Willoughby got to know Governor Brendan Byrne when, in her role as Rutgers student government president, she lobbied against tuition hikes. After graduation she secured a position in his administration as director of legislative affairs for the department of community affairs. When Byrne left office, Willoughby went to work for the New Jersey Retail Merchants Association as its president. Then four years ago she came to the New Jersey Business and Industry Association, the largest statewide business association in the country, with over 23,000 business members, as senior vice president for government affairs.
Although the New Jersey legislature is taking a break through the summer and fall to participate in campaigns for the November elections, it will return to Trenton in November for a lame duck session that will run through mid-January, when members of the new legislature will take their seats. Many important issues are already on the table, and Willoughby predicts a very active spring. She highlights the following issues:
Paid family leave. Currently family leave in New Jersey comprises 10 weeks of temporary disability that provides care for the mother only – for pregnancy or birth of child. This is in addition to unpaid family leave for both parents with newborn children, and for care of family members, required by state and federal laws for employers with over 50 employees.
Legislation that has passed out of a Senate committee would extend 10 weeks of additional benefits to those who need to care for a newborn or a family member.
The program would be paid for by putting a tax on employees, whereas in temporary disability employer and employee both pay into the plan.
The business community, however, has substantially opposed the mandate for additional benefits, believing that temporary disability in conjunction with unpaid family leave is sufficient. NJBIA agrees.
"This would be another expense at a time when the economy in New Jersey tends to be fragile," says Willoughby. The state needs to examine programs that can be eliminated to cut the budget, she adds, rather than adding programs.
Expanded mental health coverage. Employers with 50 employees or fewer are required to provide mental health coverage to their employees, if they offer medical coverage, but with limitations on the number of days permitted for psychiatric care and the number of inpatient stays allowed. Legislation that has already passed the Senate would require these employers to provide unlimited mental health coverage.
NJBIA opposes this law, which would increase the cost of insurance for all small employers or individuals, with many having to pay for benefits they would not use.
Willoughby sees this as yet another contribution to rising healthcare costs. "We are working hard to ensure that the already exponential costs of healthcare in the state do not go up any further," she explains. Willoughby says that premiums have increased 80 percent over the last five years, and the typical plan costs $7,500 a year. "Adding additional mandates increases the number of employers that drop coverage."
Healthcare reform. Speaker Joseph Roberts has committed to healthcare reform, and consideration may begin in the lame duck session. NJBIA is examining the Massachusetts health plan, a universal coverage plan that requires everyone to buy health insurance, but which the state is having difficulty implementing. Both the governor and a number of legislators are examining many healthcare proposals but haven’t come up with a final plan.
"We feel the system needs reform," says Willoughby. "It can’t continue the way it is currently structured." NJBIA’s healthcare reform agenda looks at quality of care, elimination of mandates, better technology to eliminate costly drug and operations errors, and improved care for the uninsured to replace charity care at hospitals.
Eminent domain. Laws in New Jersey have been leaning toward municipal control, says Willoughby, rather than ensuring protection for businesses and homeowners. NJBIA is hoping that the legislature will come up a plan to ensure that during the public hearings and other significant steps in the exercise of eminent domain, "the value of the property will be taken into consideration to ensure the owner is properly compensated."
Asset monetization. With the state in such financial disarray, Governor Corzine has proposed examining how New Jersey might generate revenue from its assets – including toll roads and properties – that will be substantial enough to pay down the state’s debt and eventually fund capital projects like transportation and other long-term capital needs.
In response to controversy over the possibility of the government selling or leasing roadways to foreign operators, the governor has stipulated that he is looking at ways to generate money without selling or leasing the properties.
Both politicians and the business community, says Willoughby, have concerns about how much tolls would have to go up on roadways to pay off bonds sold to reap benefits from the toll roads. If, for example, the New Jersey Turnpike and the Garden State Parkway were expected to generate $10 billion, she says, repayment of the bonds would require a toll increase every year over the next 30 years. A by-product of toll increases is that trucks would move onto local roads to avoid paying higher tolls.
Energy. The greenhouse gas emissions bill, just signed into law at the beginning of July, requires that emissions be reduced to 1990 levels no later than January 2, 2020. The bill, says Willoughby, "propelled New Jersey into the national global warming spotlight." The administration is working with business to develop an energy master plan for the state.
"Energy issues are big," says Willoughby, "and will impact all business. There needs to be a recognition by the citizens of New Jersey that in order to move in this direction, there’s a cost to businesses and to home owners.
While the New Jersey state agenda mirrors the national political agenda, with energy and healthcare as central concerns, this is a state that has often lead the way. As it does so, says Willoughby, it has to balance the effects on businesses and the economy against social and environmental goals.