NJ Politics Digest: Sweeney Challenges Murphy to Public Pension Debate

Steve Sweeney.
Steve Sweeney. Kevin B. Sanders for Observer

It’s no secret that Gov. Phil Murphy and Senate President Steve Sweeney don’t see eye-to-eye on the how to reform public worker benefits in order to get a handle on the state’s looming pension crisis. So on Friday, Sweeney challenged Murphy to a public debate on the issue.

Sweeney issued the challenge following reports that Murphy’s Deputy Chief of Staff for Outreach Deborah Cornavaca, in a conference call with liberal activists, said Sweeney’s Path to Progress plan for addressing the financial crisis, which includes cuts to public workers pensions and benefits, was seeking to “force a false narrative” against public workers.

While Cornavaca made it clear she was speaking as an individual on her own time, Sweeney said that when such a highly placed member of the administration speaks, even on their own time, they are representing the governor.

“It’s disappointing,” Sweeney said. “I gotta tell you, if they are saying this is a false narrative, I would be willing to go anywhere in the state, side-by-side with Governor Murphy and have a debate on this, to see if there really is a problem or not a problem.”

Sweeney said the Murphy administration was wrong to accuse him of “blowing it out of proportion” when he discussed finding solutions for the fiscal problem. “We are going to be in the hole by $4 billion by 2023. You can’t raise taxes enough to fix this now,” Sweeney said.

Murphy is closely allied with the state’s public worker unions and has shown little appetite for cutting benefits or other measures to rein in costs that might erode their support. He hasn’t publicly taken a stand on Sweeney’s plan, but he has released his own proposal, one that doesn’t call for benefit cuts and instead calls for savings through administrative efforts to more efficiently manage the state health care benefits. The plan did not suggest ways to address the state’s growing pension obligation, but Murphy has said he will fully fund the state pension system.

The dispute is part of an ongoing battle between Sweeney and Murphy over state finances and its crushing tax burden. Murphy contends residents would be willing to pay even more in taxes if they feel they are getting their money’s worth in state services. He raised taxes by nearly $1.4 billion last year, then also approved an increase in the state motor fuels tax. He has refused to rule out seeking additional tax increases this year.

Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, however, have said they will not support raising taxes, setting up the Democratic governor and the Democratic legislature for another budget battle this summer.

Quote of the Day: “They’re almost setting a precedent: Either you have a video or a physical injury or there’s no sense in coming forward,” — Assemblywoman Holly Schepisi, on prosecutors’ saying there was no credible evidence to pursue rape allegations brought by Katie Brennan, a former campaign volunteer for Gov. Phil Murphy.

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