Critical work on the agenda for New Jersey lawmakers. Without funding the Transportation Trust Fund, the roads won’t be fixed. Without funding pensions, the budget won’t be balanced. Without more jobs, the economy won’t budge. Without compromise between the Legislature and Gov. Chris Christie, very little gets accomplished. NJTV News Correspondent David Cruz spoke with Senate President Steve Sweeney about working with Gov. Christie.
Cruz: Is this a governor that you still find it easy to work with? In terms of making deals, big deals?
Sweeney: He is very pragmatic, as I am, and the speaker [Assemblyman Vincent Prieto]. So we try wherever we can to find common ground to make agreements and we will continue to do that. We don’t want to be Washington, we just don’t want to hunker down into our foxholes and say that we are not going to do anything. So we are going to continue to try to find areas of compromise where we can work and where we can’t, we won’t. Where we disagree, we will disagree.
Cruz: Couple things coming up, particularly the Transportation Trust Fund. What’s your sense on where you are in this negotiation process for this and whether or not we can start talking in 2015 about a gas tax?
Sweeney: Well I don’t know whether there will be a gas tax or some other form of a revenue raiser. Christie, myself and Prieto have had a few meetings right now. We are getting closer to having a public discussion but we are not there yet. But we are getting closer and it could be soon.
Cruz: What do you think the judge is going to rule on these pensions? That’s a whole other budget nightmare potentially waiting for you.
Sweeney: I think that judges are going to rule that Christie did the wrong thing here and that is why we presented a budget to show that you can fund the pensions. So I won’t be surprised if the judges rule against Christie, and I hope since Christie signed this legislation, then argued it was unconstitutional, which is kind of ironic, that I hope that the courts rule that what we did was legitimate and legal and that he has to fund the pensions. We need to deal with these issues. There’s 800,000 people in the state of New Jersey that are reliant and dependent and did their part and we promised to do our part. And we actually asked them to pay more, which didn’t go easy as you know and then he reneged on his part of the agreement, which was to fund it.
Cruz: And so what happens now if the judge does reverse that? Isn’t that budget based on what we did financially?
Sweeney: Well what I would expect because it is so late in the year, we expect the judge not to rule until February or March, that again it is the same situation as last year, the money won’t be there. It’s too late. The money gets spent all year long. But for the budget that we will be working on, that will have to fund it, and we think there’s ways of funding it. Christie is choosing not to.
Cruz: I couldn’t let any discussion of 2015 go without approaching again the issue of who might be running for governor?
Sweeney: I think Christie is going to be the governor until 2017 and we will see later on.
Cruz: Let me ask it this way. If Christie decides to run for president, in your mind, should he do that full time and leave governing New Jersey to someone else?
Sweeney: Listen, it would be an easy one to say he should leave, but I’m not going to.
Cruz: I’m giving it to you.
Sweeney: You are throwing me a softball but I am not going to say that. Christie got elected by the people, whether I agree with them or not — which obviously I didn’t, but he got elected to a four-year term and if he decides to stay, he is going to stay. The next gubernatorial election is in 2017 and nobody really should be worrying about it until the proper time.
Cruz: So I know what you are saying, but let me ask you this. Did you think during this past year when Christie did all of this traveling, did it affect his relationship with the Legislature or his ability to do his general gubernatorial stuff?
Sweeney: Not really because you know that the statute that we have in our constitution where when the governor is out of state, you have to have someone else take over as an acting, is really antiquated. That was in 1947. You we have cell phones now, we have the ability to communicate, and to be perfectly honest, when he is away, we still talk. I can’t speak for Prieto but I’m sure he communicates with him also. Physically, I look at it, when the president of the United States leaves the country, he is still the president of the United States because he is still in charge and still communicates. I was the acting governor for one week when Christie was gone and the lieutenant governor was gone. I can assure you that his administration and he was in charge even though I was named acting governor. That’s what it, acting, you don’t have to do anything because it is his administration.
Cruz: What’s your top goal for 2015?
Sweeney: Jobs, the economy, it’s been for the last five years. New Jersey’s lagging and its economy has been lagging. The one thing that I have been really proud about is minimum wage and this is the first year of the automatic increase. Since we have raised the minimum wage, the economy is starting to improve. Most states that have a higher minimum wage than the federal average have stronger economies. We are starting to see job creation and job growth. I really strongly feel that is due to the fact that we are creating pressure from the bottom up and it is creating jobs.