TRENTON — Decrying what they characterized as a lack of respect between members of their own caucus and the rest of the Democratic body, leaders of the legislature’s black caucus convened today to unveil their eighth annual legislative and budget priorities agenda, a lengthy 10 page outline that includes preservation of funding for the Earned Income Tax Credit program, pension payments, and expansion and construction of affordable housing.
“What the members of the legislative black caucus have to say, both individually but collectively, is just as important in New Jersey as anyone else in the legislature. I constantly remind the Senate President and the Speaker — regardless of who the Senate president is at the time — that we are no subordinate to anyone in the state legislature, and we are not subordinated to the governor,” state Senator Ron Rice (D-28), the caucus’ chairman, said.
Joined by other ranking representatives of the 18 member group, Rice led an attack against what he called a “lack of ongoing communication” between the legislature’s Democrats leadership, such as Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-3) and Assembly Speaker Vinnie Prieto (D-32), and his own group on issues affecting their districts. It’s a complaint the Newarker has made before, but one that was backed up by other members of the caucus today, who stood by as Rice lamented a relationship that “needs to be enhanced.”
“We are coequals,” Rice said. “And sometimes we don’t feel like that because the issues and concerns that we have oftentimes go unaddressed, and sometimes for too long.”
Among their more specific grievances, Rice said the caucus’ concerns are routinely neglected by in the legislature’s overall agenda, which has done little to address the chronic economic and social problems affecting many of the urban areas their districts encompass. Assemblyman Jerry Green (D-22) described how his own efforts at increasing the affordable housing supply in the state have been stalled by the front office, while Assemblyman Benji Wimberly (D-35) said that more recently, lawmakers have overlooked hundreds of teacher and aide layoffs this year in Paterson.
Many of those policy initiatives were included in the caucus’ agenda, which included priorities for this year’s budget — such as ensuring funding for the state’s Equal Opportunity Fund and increasing K-12 education funding — as well as broader legislative items — such as improving higher education and enhancing public safety.
“It’s obvious to the members of the New Jersey Legislative Black Caucus that as much as we would like, we cannot restore all of the dollars the Governor is proposing eliminating or reducing in services and programs for our residents and business community,” Rice said. “However, it must be understood that our members see our senior and disabled citizens, our youth, the unemployed and homeless population as the most vulnerable victims of the Governor’s budget proposal.”
But Rice added that that breakdown in communication had been evidenced as recently as this afternoon, when his own press conference preceded one by Prieto and Sweeney and other members of the legislature’s leadership on modernizing voting techniques. Rice claimed he was not invited to partake in that initiative, despite voter rights being close to the hearts of many members of the black caucus, and so would not support the bill until he learns more about it.
Sweeney and Prieto both downplayed Rice’s criticism when asked about it following the presser, but others present attested to a divide in priorities among the legislature as a whole.
“We are all Democrats in the legislative black caucus, and we are all supportive of our Democratic leadership. I think what Senator Rice is addressing, many of the issues that he alluded to today have not been identified as priorities by our colleagues in the legislature,” said Assemblywoman Sheila Oliver (D-34). “When he speaks to the three state takeover districts, we are violating existing law on school funding, on returning local control. There is nothing but chaos in the Newark school district, in the Paterson school district, which has been state controlled for many, many years.”
“We want the same level of support from our Democratic colleagues to support issues that are important to us,” she added.
Green, the longest serving member of the legislature’s lower house, praised Rice for his leadership, saying it’s time “for us all to get on the same page.” He also said lawmakers will see a “changing of the guard” in the state over the next five years, as evolving demographics and voting trends place more power in the hands of ethnic and cultural minorities.
“The next four years, whoever occupies that front office, they’re going to have to deal with these issues, they’re not going to ignore me like the last five years with housing,” Green said.
“I take my hat off to Senator Rice, because he has not quit. He has not given up,” Green added.
Rice said he and Sweeney had talked the night before, and that the two agreed to communicate on a month-by-month basis going forward.