TRENTON — As one of New Jersey’s last dual-termers, State Sen. Paul Sarlo enjoys the domestic diet. It could be an obstacle to one of Governor Phil Murphy’s major public health bills.
Sarlo (D-Bergen), chairman of the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee, said in an interview that he “tended not to publish” a hearing on a bill expanding needle exchange programs, which provide clean needles to drug addicts and offer services to reduce drug use.
The legislation, NJ S3009(20R), would give the Department of Health exclusive authority to authorize and terminate trading, a power that municipalities currently have. As mayor of Wood-Ridge, Sarlo said the elimination of municipal authority was problematic.
“Needle exchanges are necessary. They work,” he said. “But there needs to be an agreement between local officials, social service groups and the Department of Health and Human Services. There has to be a consortium of people who agree that this is the right facility, the right location for it.
Simply put, if Sarlo doesn’t post the measure for a hearing during the lame duck, the bill — which includes a $5 million appropriation to support programs and $10 million for disorder treatment programs related to substance use – should probably wait until at least the next session, which starts next month.
“At this point, I’m leaning not to post it,” Sarlo said. “I just don’t like the idea of taking away local control. This is very problematic for me.
The bill’s main sponsor, Sen. Joe Vitale (D-Middlesex) – who said he was still pushing for the bill to pass as a lame duck – said he spoke to Sarlo about his concerns and sought to amend the bill to allow municipalities more say in the location of exchanges.
“I can’t predict what [Sarlo] will ultimately decide to do it, but he was always reasonable when presented with the facts,” Vitale said in an interview Friday, adding that the votes were in to pass the measure in the full Senate.
Vitale said he hasn’t spoken to leaders about it, though he did note that the bill passed his respective health committees in both houses.
“If legislation isn’t supported by leaders, especially legislation seen as controversial, they’re usually not…heard,” he said. “These bills went through hearings and they passed. [health] committees. “
Murphy took the unusual step of publicly supporting the legislation. The administration made the announcement after Atlantic City voted to shut down its only needle exchange, despite a judge allowing it to remain open amid ongoing litigation.
Murphy’s office doubled down on its support for the bill.
“Governor Murphy believes the expansion of Harm Reduction Centers will increase access to the essential, compassionate services needed to help people with substance use disorders stay healthy, stay alive and to thrive,” Alexandra Altman, the governor’s spokeswoman, said Friday. “Governor Murphy fully supports S3009 and urges the Legislative Assembly to send him to his office.”
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that people using needle exchanges are five times more likely to start drug treatment and three times more likely to quit drug use, compared to people who do not use the program.
New Jersey has only seven needle exchanges, a small number compared to other states. Proponents of the bill say the municipal requirement hampers the creation of new centers, which can get bogged down in local politics.
“This [bill] take politics away from public health,” said Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-Bergen), sponsor of the bill in the lower house. “That is why the Ministry of Health should be responsible for the implementation of these programs. This is a public health issue, not a political issue.
Huttle said she will continue to advocate for passage of the bill and hopes to see it posted to the Assembly Appropriations Committee before the end of the session, although its fate in the lower house remains uncertain.
Senate President Steve Sweeney did not take a position on the bill.
“It’s something we need to talk about with the caucus, we haven’t done that yet,” he told reporters at the Statehouse on Thursday when asked about his support for the measure.
His office declined to comment further on Friday.
Republicans, some of whom support needle exchanges, have also expressed concern over the repeal of the domestic rule on the issue.
“Even though I have long been a supporter of needle exchange programs — it’s well documented — I will [vote] no, because cities can’t say no and you take that rule away from cities,” said Assemblywoman Nancy Munoz (R-Union), a registered nurse, while voting against the bill during a a recent committee hearing.