Following tradition after the election, legislators on both sides of the aisle caucused Thursday morning to choose next year’s leadership with one glaring exception: Speaker Vincent Prieto didn’t call his Assembly Democrats to the State House. Under siege after months of partisan dog fighting, knowing his members’ support had shifted to his rival, Middlesex County Assemblyman Craig Coughlin, Prieto finally conceded.
He announced he wouldn’t seek a new term as speaker and threw his support to Coughlin, stating “… it is time now to put the future of the state ahead of all other considerations” and thanking the members “… who stood by me during a difficult time …”.
Coughlin responded, “I am honored by Speaker Prieto’s endorsement” and “I am committed to ensuring that our caucus is unified …”. Over in the Senate, a sigh of relief from fellow Democrats who chose Steve Sweeney for another term as Senate president.
“I’m going to do, try much harder to have more lines of communications. We’re going to meet. I hold as much responsibility just as much for the public fighting that we had, and we’re going to try to avoid that and really work cohesively with the Assembly,” said Sweeney.
Sweeney and South Jersey power-broker George Norcross often butted heads with the speaker from Hudson County, most recently over the budget, school funding and the Atlantic City takeover. So, they cut a deal to promote Coughlin. Despite Prieto’s last-minute scramble for support, his four years as Assembly Speaker will end in January, though he’ll remain an assemblyman. Coughlin, an attorney who was first elected to the Assembly in 2010, will mark a new era as a Speaker from Central New Jersey with a Senate president from South Jersey, and a Democratic governor-elect.
“From women’s health care, to pay equity, to minimum wage, to paid family leave, there’s a host of bills that we’re looking to get done. I look forward to sitting down with the next speaker, Craig Coughlin, and Phil Murphy. Hopefully soon, I will reach out to see what is his vision for the next 100 days,” said Sweeney.
The most critical issue: taxes. Murphy has promised to fully fund and expand several expensive programs and raise taxes on millionaires to help pay for it. Republican legislators who’ll be without Gov. Chris Christie as a backstop are looking for ways to block any tax increases.
“Every single person out there needs to reach out to this new governor and say, ‘Look. We respect you. We’ll try to work with you. But we can’t afford to pay more in taxes,'” said Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick.
“We have no intention of being the party of ‘no,'” said Sen. Tom Kean Jr., the Senate minority leader.
Instead, Kean proposed bipartisan compromise. If Democrats reduce the income tax for the middle class — say for families earning less than $110,000 and individuals earning $50,000 to $70,000 — Republicans would support a moderate raise in New Jersey’s minimum wage to a “fair” level. That includes carve-outs.
“I think there are seasonal differences, there are age differences, there are training differences when people look to see whatever the extent of the minimum wage issue is, it should certainly be less than $15, because that would drive many businesses and employees out of work,” said Kean.
Both sides of the aisle say they’ll get some business done in the lame-duck session, but all eyes are focused on January when the balance of power in Trenton will shift blue.