Interest arbitration sunset shines light on back room dispute

TRENTON – The law the Assembly allowed to expire and that mayors say helped to slow property tax growth in the state has given Gov. Chris Christie and others something to talk about.

The governor, on his town hall circuit, has attacked the Assembly for “sticking their heads in the sand,” succumbing to special interest groups and refusing to do their job. Similarly, the New Jersey League of Municipalities has implored lawmakers to act before local leaders are forced “to make deep cuts in services.”

But the stalemate on the 2 percent cap on interest arbitration awards for unionized police and firefighters also revealed another back room discussion: There’s a new speaker in the house.

According to several Democratic sources with direct knowledge of the events, Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto (D-32) refused to post the Christie’s veto for a vote ahead of the sunset in part to prevent getting “steamrolled” by the governor and the state’s top lawmaker – Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-3).

“This is too important to get wrong,” said a Democratic source, adding the new speaker “wasn’t going to get rushed” through the process.

Late last month, Senate and Assembly lawmakers passed a bill that would extend the cap, which was set to expire at the end of March, until the end of 2017. The proposal that went through both chambers also significantly loosened the existing cap. In return, Christie conditionally vetoed the bill to add language to largely put it back in line with the existing cap.

Senate lawmakers quickly concurred with the governor’s conditional veto and Assembly members filed out of the Statehouse.

According to several Assembly Democratic sources, two things occurred that day behind closed doors that resulted in the breakdown and permitted the cap to sunset: The speed in which the Senate voted to concur with Christie gave the perception to Assembly Democrats the governor and Sweeney collaborated to some degree, and the administration’s refusal to negotiate with the Assembly meant the lower chamber was being shut out.

“It’s not going to be two out of three,” another Democratic source told PolitickerNJ.

Several Democrats stressed the dispute is more “policy over politics,” explaining the new speaker and members of the Assembly Democratic caucus had fundamental differences of opinion over the bill. Similarly, Senate Democratic sources adamantly denied Sweeney and Christie struck a deal behind the scenes.

However, just as many also suggested the arbitration cap bill was an opportunity for the new speaker to draw a line in the sand after being “burned” on the legislative investigation into the George Washington Bridge lane closure controversy around the time the Assembly was pushed into accepting a version of the New Jersey DREAM Act negotiated by the administration and the Senate.

“Substantively, they were in agreement [with the DREAM Act proposal],” said another Democratic source, explaining why the Assembly ultimately agreed to concur with the Senate and administration’s final draft of the college tuition bill that was signed into law.

But with the arbitration cap bill, the speaker is “uncomfortable with the final work product,” the source said.

The governor has since taken to his town hall circuit and criticized the Assembly without calling Prieto out by name. Instead, Christie promised to unveil his own proposal to keep property taxes in check.

“We’ll come up with some ideas and we’ll put them out there,” he said recently. “But I predicted to you today: When my plan comes out, it will be called the worst plan in the history of the state. I can guarantee you it will be said.”

In response, Prieto issued a statement indicating interest arbitration negotiations were ongoing.

“I continue to work toward a compromise that will protect taxpayers and municipalities while also being fair to the police and firefighters who sacrifice so much to protect our safety,” he said in a statement during Christie’s Fairfield town hall.

“We continue talking to key stakeholders involved and remain committed to resolving this matter in a timely fashion – as long as its negotiated in good faith and meets the Assembly’s commitment to fairness for everyone,” he said.

Interest arbitration sunset shines light on back room dispute