New Jersey’s most influential lobbying group announced Monday that it will oppose the reelection of State Senate President Steve Sweeney. That pledge is anything but an idle threat coming from an organization whose spending has dwarfed the lobbying efforts of comparable groups in the state capital. How did the relationship between one of the state’s most powerful Democrats and a seemingly natural political ally, the New Jersey Education Association, sour?
To answer that question, you have to go back to the beginning of Sweeney’s tenure as the leading legislative Democrat and examine his willingness to compromise with Republican governor Chris Christie on pension cuts. Pushback from the teacher’s union, which has become an even more powerful fundraising tool for Democrats since the Citizens United ruling of 2010, has been building each time that Sweeney and the governor cut a deal.
Here is the definitive timeline of the mounting enmity between Sweeney and the teachers’ union: school funding cuts, saber-rattling from all sides on pension reform and the further rise of the NJEA as an electoral war chest.
2008 – School funding formula devised
The watershed year for New Jersey’s current debacle over school funding. The School Funding Reform Act passed a year before then-Senate Majority Leader Sweeney rose to Senate President. Since then, the state has failed to fully fund the SFRA, averaging about 85 percent from year to year. The Education Law Center estimated in 2016 that the state’s schools missed out on $1 billion, and $10 billion since the SFRA passed.
2010-2011 – Christie cuts school aid
The year he took office, Christie cut roughly $1 billion in education spending in an effort to eliminate gaps in the state budget. Those cuts led to a lawsuit and a New Jersey Supreme Court ruling ordering the state to spend $500 million more on public education for low-income districts in 2012. The NJEA has largely blamed Sweeney for not taking a harder line on Christie for effecting the cuts, and for failing to fully fund the SFRA.
2011 – Pension reform
The NJEA attacked Sweeney for his connections to childhood friend and longtime Democratic boss George Norcross after he hashed out a compromise with Christie on a law that had teachers start paying more in out-of-pocket health costs and contributing more to the pension system. This has been the most lasting point of conflict as the state has continued to fail to make its annual pension contribution. The state has not met its agreed-upon contribution since 1996.
2013 – State’s first Super PAC-abetted gubernatorial election
The gubernatorial election that saw Christie win a second term broke spending records, and marked the first time that super PACs empowered by the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision weighed in with massive ad buys of their own. The group spent roughly $16 million in PAC and super PAC contributions, according to the state’s Election Law Enforcement Commission. The group spent 16 times more that year on lobbying and elections than it did in 2003.
2015 – Sweeney introduces legislation to constitutionally require state pension payment
Sweeney attempted to pacify his union backers with a bill to amend the state constitution and mandate quarterly pension payments by putting the question to voters with a ballot question.
2016 – Sweeney again declines to post bill making pension payment
In the thick of stalled negotiations over funding the state’s then-cratering Transportation Trust Fund, Sweeney decided against posting that bill to force the state’s hand on pensions with a constitutional amendment. Though Sweeney argued the timing was wrong to put the question on the ballot to circumvent Christie, the decision enraged the teachers’ union and led them to swear allegiance to any one of the senate president’s rivals for the gubernatorial nomination at the time.
2016 – NJEA threatens to withdraw campaign cash; Sweeney retaliates by pledging investigation
Eventually, the NJEA threatened to cut off its supply of campaign cash to Democratic county chairmen across the state unless Sweeney posted the constitutional amendment for a vote in the senate. Sweeney responded in kind by calling for a full investigation of the group by state and federal authorities, calling the threat “extortion” and “bribery.”
2017 – NJEA criticizes Sweeney school funding plan
Sweeney is currently pushing a school funding plan that he argues would take money from districts currently overfunded by the SFRA and redistribute it to those that are underfunded. The NJEA has opposed the plan since it was first introduced in the legislature, with the group’s Wendell Steinhauer saying the proposal would “lead to immediate, huge cuts for certain districts, depriving their students of vital resources” ahead of a committee hearing chaired by Sweeney at the beginning of this year.
2017 – NJEA vows to unseat Sweeney in his reelection bid
Though Christie’s pension amendment failed to launch, a less binding bill to require the quarterly payments became law before the end of the year. But the damage has already been done—the NJEA vowed this week to back a primary challenger or a Republican for Sweeney’s seat in the general election in lieu of opposing Sweeney’s abandoned gubernatorial bid. The group may also throw its support behind a rival within Senate leadership. Sweeney’s well-lined campaign coffers, connections to other powerful independent groups and support from Norcross will make that difficult to achieve. So will opposition from Democrats who bristle at the notion of the NJEA holding sway over intra-party appointments.