By Michael Aron
Chief Political Correspondent
Deadline day for the state Senate to get a constitutional amendment on the November ballot that would guarantee payments into public worker pension funds. But the deadline came and went. Chief Political Correspondent Michael Aron wades into the complexities.
Williams: Michael, what’s going on?
Aron: Well, Mary Alice there was a protest today at the State House. Hundreds of NJEA members out there upset that this deadline has come and gone without Senate action. Sen. Steve Sweeney, who is at the center of this fight, has shifted his focus from last week. He was complaining that the NJEA in particular was threatening to withhold campaign contributions unless this amendment passed and was on this fall’s ballot. Now he’s saying that the voters were rejected on this fall’s ballot and by holding off for a year he’s simply trying to protect that amendment. The head of the NJEA, who lead this rally today, said that Sweeney told us he was for this amendment and back in January it was his idea, he’s broken his word. Our Brenda Flanagan spoke to both sides today.
Wendell Steinhauer: NJ Senate President made a big splash in a news conference last week. We’ve withdrawn all support of him at this time.
Flanagan: Do you plan to campaign actively against him?
Wendell Steinhauer: We have a whole process to do, screening committee and so on to find the best candidate for that and he certainly will be included in that process.
Brenda Flanagan: But right now?
Wendell Steinhauer: Right now, we’ve with drawn support completely at this point.
Senate President Steve Sweeney: I hear what they’re saying and I get the chance and I’m hearing all the threats but I’m sorry. We need to straighten out our budget so that we put us in a situation when we put this question up in a situation that’s the best possibility of passage. It’s that simple.
Brenda Flanagan: So the threats of non-endorsement and just completely withdrawing support?
Senate President Steve Sweeney: Look, they can do and say whatever they want. They have that right. My position is I have to look at this globally and the fact that they would be willing to go to the voters with less than the likelihood of it passing is more concerning to me.
Williams: Sweeney said he had to clarify the budget. He also said he can’t address the pension problem until we solve the Transportation Trust Fund problem. Is it really about fixing roads and bridges? Or is it about gubernatorial politics? Is it a little bit of both?
Aron: It is a little bit of both or a lot of both. Certainly fixing the Transportation Trust Fund will have a significant impact on the state budget. Sweeney has a point when he says he wants to see what that impact is before agreeing to a $3 billion a year pension payment. But it’s also about re-positioning himself for 2017. At least that’s what some are saying. He doesn’t look like a big Democratic spender if he opposed this amendment, he looks more like a centrist and he shows that he is his own man not beholden to union bosses or the inside power structure.
Williams: He’s a union guy who has voted for reforms that have actually been considered unfavorable to unions for a long time. Is that going to hurt him in the gubernatorial race?
Aron: Well it seems to be already underlying this tarnished relationship right here. In 2006 he is proud saying he first brought up this issue. In 2011 he was instrumental in the major reform that Governor Christie signed that ended up cutting worker benefits and increasing their payments. He’s a building trades guy, he’s an iron worker. He’s not a public sector guy at heart and that’s another reason why he thinks the Transportation Trust Fund is the most important thing, more important than this pension amendment.