By KATIE MOEN
For The Westfield Leader
WESTFIELD — State Senator Jon Bramnick (LD-21), the former Assembly Minority Leader who beat out Democratic challenger Joseph Signorello in November, held his first public town hall since taking the oath of office in January. The event, held in the Westfield Community Room, attracted approximately 60 state and local representatives, residents, activists and business owners for an hour-long discussion on everything from abortion rights and gun control to gerrymandering and bail reform.
“The reason I’m doing this is because there isn’t enough discussion between people on really serious issues,” Sen. Bramnick said. “People on both sides of these issues think they are 100 percent right, and even though there probably is some middle ground, no one looks for it.”
Senator Bramnick, who, in addition to serving in the state assembly for more than two decades also has established himself as a fairly-well-known standup comic, said Tuesday that state officials on both sides of the aisle need to start finding new ways to facilitate more direct communication with the general public. “I have a bill that would require the leadership [specifically, the majority and minority leaders from both branches of the legislature and the governor of New Jersey] to meet quarterly. Think about this — if you have a corporate board, they have to meet. They have to issue some sort of statement about the company, but we don’t do that at all,” Sen. Bramnick said. “I know this is probably kind of hard to believe, but they don’t talk to each other unless there is some massive disagreement.” The bill (S201) was introduced in January and currently is in committee review. S201, Senator Bramnick said Tuesday, would hold the Trenton higher-ups to the same level of public accountability (if not scrutiny) as local representatives. “When you’re a council member, when you’re sitting on the school board, people can come right up and talk to you and tell you what they think. It opens up discussions. That doesn’t happen at the state level. There’s not enough direct communication with the public, and I know some people prefer it that way, but it needs to change,” he said.
The conversation Tuesday night quickly turned to gun-control measures at the state and federal level in response to a recent mass-shooting event that took the lives of 19 elementary-school children and two teachers in Uvalde, Tex., last week. “Other than California, New Jersey has the strictest gun-control laws in the country. You can’t buy an assault weapon in New Jersey. There are incredible restrictions,” Sen. Bramnick said, noting that of the gun-related crimes that have been committed in the state’s most urban areas in recent years, almost none of the weapons used were purchased in New Jersey. “The problem is not New Jersey. The problem is that there are not enough common sense gun laws around the country.”
Senator Bramnick, a self-described moderate Republican, went on to say that the gerrymandering process, which allows representatives of less-densely populated states to consider the immediate needs of their direct constituencies above those of the general public at large, has contributed to the discrepancies. “You’ve got such extremes in terms of who is representing parts of this country, but that doesn’t mean there can’t be some simple gun reform,” he stated. “For example, the 18-year-old who killed all of these innocent elementary-school kids bought an assault rifle. There’s no discussion on any of that because of the extremes that we’re dealing with.” When asked about the efficacy of groups like the NRA, Sen. Bramnick said that while such organizations do serve as a vehicle, they tend to only get results in pro-gun states where residents are avidly opposed to any kind of reform.
New Jersey’s “catch and release” bail-reform amendment (which relegated cash bail to the last resort to ensure defendants’ appearance at trial) has faced mounting criticism from politicians on both sides of the aisle since it was first enacted under the Christie administration in 2014, Senator Bramnick said Tuesday. “Most of us were supportive of bail reform because we understood that if someone is in jail for a non-violent crime but doesn’t have enough money [to post bail], but the next person can just pay to get out, conceptually, it made sense. The prison population has dropped by 50 percent, and I’m not saying that that’s good or bad. In my opinion, anyone who violates the law for a second time needs to go back in. Bail reform will be reformed again, but the problem is, right now, I don’t see any real movement in the legislature. It has gone way too far to one side.”
“This one is very partisan,” Sen. Bramnick said Tuesday when asked about the overdevelopment of local communities in response to Fair Share Affordable Housing legislation. “For some reason, the Democratic party in this state will not pass a comprehensive affordable-housing law, and so what you have is the courts saying that each town has to have a certain number of affordable units. It is a ridiculous, expensive and not very intelligent way of doing things. You’re asking judges in the superior courts to decide how many units go into Cranford. First of all, they have no planning experience. These towns have to pay millions of dollars in attorney fees to defend these cases, so why doesn’t the legislature [draft an affordable housing plan?].”
Sen. Bramnick went on to suggest that the state may want to look at affordable housing from a regional perspective, rather than a municipal one.
“That way, you could build these units where there is transportation and infrastructure,” he said, “but since you need 41 votes in the Assembly, 21 votes in the Senate and the governor to sign it, it ain’t moving.”
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