A bill that a state senator said she would sponsor will require New Jersey’s most influential elected officials — the Governor, Senate President, and Assembly Speaker — to name more women and minorities to public boards and commissions in order to address the state’s pervasive gender disparity.
Assemblywoman Yvonne Lopez, D-Middlesex, told NJ Advance Media that she is rewriting legislation she proposed in February that would have made gender and race a major factor in deciding who should serve on state boards. as well as task forces.
Her latest bill would be more “aggressive,” requiring women, minorities, and LGBTQ people to make up at least half of all committees, commissions, and task forces.
“It’s time,” said Lopez, a retired banking executive. “The ultimate goal is to ensure that the people who do the dedicated work on boards and commissions, furthering the business of New Jersey, look like the residents of New Jersey.”
Lopez said a NJ Advance Media story published Sunday on NJ.com and in The Star-Ledger and its associated newspapers influenced her decision to amend the bill, A5348, which found men outnumber women on virtually all of the state’s most influential boards.
Just one woman serves on several public boards, such as the New Jersey Turnpike Authority, the state Public Employment Relations Commission, and the Sports and Exposition Authority. According to the NJ Advance Media review, some organizations, such as State Investment Council, have no women at all.
The study highlighted a law passed in Iowa, which was the first state to mandate an equal number of men and women on government boards. Lopez said she’ll use that bill as a model for her proposed legislation in New Jersey, but she’ll broaden it to include people of color and the LGBTQ community.
According to Lopez, the bill would also require the governor’s office to maintain a website that records all appointments, making it easier for the public to see open positions and assess for diversity.
The composition of 900 seats on 85 of the state’s most powerful boards, ranging from public colleges to transportation agencies, arts commissions, and regulated occupations, was examined by NJ Advance Media.
According to the survey, women held about 28% of the seats as of April 1, while men held 55% of the seats and about 18% were vacant.
The study found that even if women were named to all 158 positions on the most important boards, they would only occupy half of the seats.
Gov. Phil Murphy’s spokeswoman told NJ Advance Media that if the Legislature passed a gender representation bill similar to the one passed in Iowa, he would support it.
“Gov. Murphy would support an effort to ensure an equal number of men and women on our state boards. He is open to working with the Legislature to make that goal a reality,” said Alyana Alfaro, the governor’s spokeswoman.
The administration unveiled a website on Tuesday with a list of the names of 331 appointments Murphy has made to boards, committees, and cabinet positions that need Senate approval since he took office, as well as a separate list of 836 direct appointments Murphy has made that do not.
Murphy’s administration is also working to update the state’s boards and commissions website, which will include an updated list of who sits on each board and where vacancies exist.
Lopez said that if her proposed legislation becomes law, it will take a long time to enact because most board members serve multi-year terms before their positions become available for new members.
She said Murphy “is trying” to get more women and minorities on boards that are largely white and male.
“But we have to get better,” she said.
Iowa has the nation’s oldest and most stringent legislation requiring a gender representation on state boards. According to the Rutgers Center for American Women and Politics, at least eight other states, including Connecticut, Rhode Island, and New Hampshire, have variations of the same legislation that advocate for more women on boards but do not require it.
In the state Senate, Sen. Teresa Ruiz, D-Essex, has presented a bill that is similar to Lopez’s. She also said that she would consider amending it to mandate state boards to have a 50 percent female, minority, and LGBTQ representation.
“Let’s have a conversation about it,” Ruiz said.
Though Murphy’s administration is eager to increase the number of women and minorities on public boards, future governors’ goals may change, according to Ruiz. To make some meaningful long-term change, a legislation will be needed.
A5347, introduced by Ruiz and Lopez, would require private companies based in New Jersey to have boards that represent the state’s ethnic and gender diversity by Dec. 31 or face a $100,000 fine.
“If these companies are going to live off the consumers of this state, your board should reflect the representation of the state,” Lopez said.
State Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, D-Bergen, said she didn’t know whether a gender parity bill would get enough votes to pass or how long it would take to adjust the makeup of state boards if it became law.
“The parity bill might be appropriate, but who knows how long it will take to get there?” said Weinberg, the highest ranking woman in the state Legislature.
She believes the first step should be to obtain an updated list of vacancies on every public board, begin filling those positions with diverse candidates, and continue to shine a light on a topic that has been overlooked for far too long.
“The thing that does the most is sunlight — and the Legislature and the Governor wanting to do it,” Weinberg said.