POLITICS & GOVERNMENT

Gubernatorial candidates respond to arbitration cap report

BY Brenda Flanagan, Senior Correspondent |

Assemblyman Declan O’Scanlon had an insouciant take on a political firestorm he helped spark this week.

“As long as I’m telling the truth and doing the right thing, I’m very comfortable with whatever names anyone starts to call me,” he said.

He went rogue and unilaterally released a state task force report that says a two percent cap on police and firefighter salaries reached through arbitration should be permanently renewed. O’Scanlon says the cap kept pay hikes low and helped save New Jersey property taxpayers more than $530 million over the past six years. Here’s the political rub: the Monmouth County Republican’s one of four Christie appointees on the task force. The other half, cops and firefighters appointed by Democrats, voted against releasing a report without more study.

“Well, the question is, are we going to permit that half of the task force cause paralysis and keep this vital, critical information from the public? And that’s their goal,” argued O’Scanlon. “They feel they can stall now, get through the election, get through the end of the year and maybe scuttle the policy.”

Task force members from the police and firefighter unions argued the group needs to collect more information, and claims other factors besides the cap helped keep a lid on property tax rates. They call the report released by O’Scanlon a “sham,” a one-sided picture from half the committee.

“We think it’s wrong that they came out with it now,” said Ed Donnelly, president of the New Jersey Firefighters Mutual Benevolent Association, “There’s no reason this report had to come out Sept. 28. We have not had time to fact check it. And, I can tell you right now, it is missing a lot of info that will show a very different picture,”

The report’s release played straight into Kim Guadagno’s campaign game plan. The Republican candidate for governor has for weeks called on Trenton lawmakers to renew the cap before it expires Dec. 31. Her opponent, Democrat Phil Murphy, has avoided taking a position until the task force released its report. Well, now there’s a report, which the Murphy campaign called “a transparent political stunt by the governor’s appointees. It obviously does not represent a consensus of the entire task force.”

Murphy said at a campaign event earlier in the week, “Let’s get back in the state to make decisions based on all of the facts, not just some of them, with all interested parties at the table.”

“It doesn’t surprise me that Phil Murphy doesn’t want to take a position on the arbitration cap, because if he does, he’s going to have to choose between the unions and the taxpayer. And I think the only choice today is that we have to go with the taxpayers. The arbitration cap, the numbers in the report show, is working,” said Guadagno.

The cap is part of Christie’s original toolkit to help hold down property taxes and critics suggest he had a hand in the report’s release.

“They don’t want to deal with it. So obviously good for the people of the state unless you are a police officer or firefighter who can get a big salary increase,” said Christie.

But it’s unclear whether this issue will resonate with distracted voters in a governor’s race that puts Guadagno behind by double digits.

“The news about the arbitration cap and how valuable it’s been is simply like trying to light a spark. You know, you’re sitting in the woods, trying to start a fire. All the leaves are wet and you keep hitting that flint, hitting that flint, hoping one day something’s going to spark and that’s where we are right now,” Monmouth University Pollster Patrick Murray diagnosed.

Because this is New Jersey, this isn’t over yet. The police and firefighter half of the task force say they want to keep working on the report, but if they get no cooperation they say they’ll go to court, and say it takes more than half a task force to do the whole job.