Sweeney Responds to Union Critics on TTF Debacle

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TRENTON — New Jersey’s State Senate President is weighing an override of Governor Chris Christie in a bid to resolve a political stalemate that has jeopardized his support from public unions. Steve Sweeney (D-3) said at a State House press conference Thursday that he will decide before the end of the week whether to post a bill that would fund the state’s ailing Transportation Trust Fund with a gas tax hike.

Sweeney and Christie have been at odds on the issue, with Sweeney favoring a bipartisan Senate bill to offset the 23-cent hike with a phase-out of the estate tax and Christie favoring a successful Assembly bill that would make costlier cuts to the sales tax tax instead.

The impasse led Sweeney delay posting his bill to amend the state constitution and require quarterly payments into the state’s underfunded public pension system earlier this week, for which he was booed on the floor. Sweeney has said that the governor’s TTF plan — which would cost roughly twice as much at $1.9 billion in lost sales tax revenue — would make timely pension payments impossible.

Though tensions between Sweeney and the NJEA, one of the state’s largest public sector labor organizations, came to a head this week when he called for state and federal investigations of the group for alleged threats to withhold campaign contributions to state Democrats until he puts the pension amendment to a vote, Sweeney said he is committed to passing the bill with or without outside pressure.

“The same results have happened each time trying to save the worker’s pensions. I get the crap kicked out of me, and that’s okay,” Sweeney said. “I think I’ve proven myself over the years. I care about pensions. I want the workers to get their pensions.

“Do you think the governor, just on his own, put the payment in the budget for the pension? He did it because of the pressure we’ve been putting on him. And when we had a $1.1 billion shortfall this year, the pension payment wasn’t sacrificed. It was made.”

On the chances of an override vote to push the gas tax through and remove the stumbling block for his pension amendment, Sweeney said he is “one or two votes away” in the Senate. Though the Senate successfully moved to override Christie earlier this year, the effort failed in the Assembly.

Sweeney reiterated his view that Christie will not be willing to make any compromises until after this year’s election cycle. Christie is serving as the leader of Republican nominee Donald Trump’s transition team.

“This thing is not going to be resolved, in my mind, until after the presidential election,” he said.

Criticism from labor organizations continued that same day, with CWA NJ State Director Hetty Rosenstein calling the delay another instance where state government treats public workers’ pensions as a last priority.

“The fact that Senate President Sweeney – at the eleventh hour – will not post it for a vote is the exact reason we’re demanding a constitutional amendment,” Rosenstein wrote in a statement. “There is no reason the pension should be a casualty of the legislature’s inability to secure votes for the Transportation Trust Fund.”

Liberal think tank New Jersey Policy Perspective also weighed in, calling the estate tax phase-out plan skewed toward the rich. They believe its accompanying increase in the EITC does too little.

The group’s Jon Whiten wrote in a statement that while “eliminating the estate tax will deliver an average tax cut of more than $100,000 to a few thousand heirs (and an average tax cut of more than $1 million to those inheriting the very largest estates), boosting the Earned Income Tax Credit will give nearly 600,000 striving and struggling working families a credit of about $250 each.”