TRENTON — One of New Jersey’s top Democrats predicted Friday that a constitutional amendment to mandate quarterly pension payments could be endangered by the continuing standoff in the legislature over how to fund the ailing Transportation Trust Fund. Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-3), the sponsor of the legislation that would put that amendment to voters in the form of a ballot question, said at the State House that the state cannot afford to both implement Governor Chris Christie’s favored TTF plan and pay its public pension obligations in a timely way.
Christie has sided with Assembly Speaker Vince Prieto (D-32), lending his support to an Assembly bill that would offset funding the TTF with a 37-cent increase in the per-gallon gas tax by making a one percent cut to the sales tax. Senate Democrats have spent months pitching Republicans a competing bipartisan plan to offset the hike with a phase-out of the estate tax, which among other cuts would cost the state roughly half the losses in tax revenue: $900 million rather than $1.5 billion or more.
“We are struggling with the fact that the Assembly has passed a bill that would put a $2 billion hole, a $1.8 billion hole in the budget,” Sweeney said of the negotiations before invoking his previous bill to mandate pension payments in 2011. That measure failed in the Assembly.
“We were stretching when we did the tax cuts that we did. We thought that there was income retention, that we were going to gain dollars and do that by doing the tax cuts responsibly.
“We knew we could afford it. We can’t afford what was passed. And I’m going to try to sit down with the Speaker to see what we can do as a legislature. And up to this point he says ‘I’ve got to get the governor’s approval.’ And I’m trying to get that.”
Sweeney and Christie have met and discussed a compromise measure from the Senate President, though no details of that proposal have been made public. Sweeney said an override is unlikely on the TTF, and that the bill to require pension payments will be impossible without a compromise.
“The governor has been very clear to me,” he said. “He says he’s got 43 votes in the Democratic Assembly.”
“You can’t do it all. If we got the TTF plan right, we could do the constitutional amendment.”
Sweeney said that lawmakers could easily opt for a special session before the end of the month, an move that Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick (R-21) has also called for. All work on non-essential construction has stopped, with the TTF having just a little over a month’s worth of full-scale construction left in it.
“It raises the bar so much higher,” he said of the Assembly bill. “Because the governor has already supported a plan. And I’ve worked with the governor and I know one thing: once he gets into a position, which he is in — he got the bill he wanted from Democrats — you’re going to have a problem.”
Asked about Donald Trump’s decision to make Indiana Governor Mike Pence his running mate over Christie, Sweeney said that he believes the governor’s availability during talks over the gas tax will remain the same.
“Who says he’s not going to campaign,” he asked.