Atlantic City has five months to find $44 million in savings to stave off a state takeover. That’s the upshot of a deal arrived at by nothing short of a scrum in Trenton and at great political cost to the players. That includes gubernatorial hopeful and Senate President Steve Sweeney. Chief Political Correspondent Michael Aron sat down with him to hash out the winners and losers.
Aron: Senator, how much political capital do you think you expended to get the Atlantic City bill through?
Sweeney: I don’t know how much capital, but it really didn’t matter. It had to get done, Michael. At the end of the day Atlantic City needed to reform itself and we had to make sure we protected the taxpayers of the state of New Jersey. So political capital, you measure it in many ways so I’m not really concerned about that. I had to get it done and I’m glad it’s done and we’re giving Atlantic City the opportunity to fix itself. I’m not overly optimistic after watching their behavior over the last several months. Michael, everyone looks at this like right now, the period of time we watch, I introduced the PILOT bill in November of 2014 and they haven’t done anything since then knowing this had to be fixed.
Aron: If they don’t get it done the state takes over in five months. State takeovers generally don’t work — what do you say to that?
Sweeney: Well I certainly hope we don’t have to do a takeover because I don’t want to take over. In this situation it would work better than what’s going on in Atlantic City. In Atlantic City it’d be funny if it wasn’t so sad, some of the things that they’ve done down there. You know, they put up a resolution three times to dissolve their MUA and then they don’t do it. You know, the mayor puts up a layoff plan, he sees the bill passed, he pulls back the layoff plan. Michael, this PILOT bill was introduced in November of 2014, so you know we had a problem. Why wasn’t Atlantic City fixing the problems they have?
Aron: Let me get back to political capital. We know you aspire to run for governor in 2017. For four months on this issue other Democrats said you were joined at the hip with Chris Christie and that doesn’t help. How do you see that?
Sweeney: Listen, I’m the Senate president. I don’t get a pass, some people do, where they can just criticize and point fingers. But then some people have to lead in the state. Look, I negotiated with the governor. You know, I fight with him just as much as I get along with him, but at the end of the day he’s the governor and whether people like him or not, he’s popular or not, he’s the governor so I had to negotiate a solution with him. That’s what happens, Michael.
Aron: And the public employee unions who were upset with the stand you took because they saw it as trampling on collective bargaining rights, have you antagonized the unions again as in 2011 with pension and benefit reform?
Sweeney: Absolutely not. And Michael, if you were at the State House when we finished up the bill did you see any public unions protesting? You didn’t see one. No one was protesting. It was all politics. Unfortunately people decided to make it more political than it was governmental. I actually secured, from the governor, early buyout options for police, fire and all the employees of Atlantic City that qualify. That was important.
Aron: You say it was politics, senator. The governor kept saying that Vincent Prieto was taking the position he was taking in order to further the gubernatorial ambitions of Steve Fulop. Those words didn’t come out of your mouth publicly the way they came out of Chris Christie’s mouth regularly for a couple of weeks. Do you think Prieto was carrying water for Fulop?
Sweeney: I’ll let others determine that, Michael. What my point was the day we passed this final Atlantic City bill that had all the provisions — the only difference from the bill that everyone was protesting is 150 days. That’s it, and I’m the one that offered 130 days. So, we saw all my friends in labor because I’m a labor person. You didn’t see protesting over the bill and there was silence. In fact I got a fax from one of the labor organizations thanking us for the bill.
Aron: Can Prieto walk away from this feeling like a winner because he got a five-month reprieve from a takeover?
Sweeney: I can’t speak for the speaker and what he thinks if he had a win or a loss. I offered 130 days.
Aron: You think you had a win?
Sweeney: No, no. The people of New Jersey, the taxpayers, won. But understand we had offered Atlantic City’s mayor — and I can show you the memorandum of understanding — in July of 2015 basically the same thing that they just approved which was a 90-day memorandum of understanding for them to get their own house in order to come up with a plan. So, we were actually working quietly with the mayor. We offered him a plan in July. We offered him one in October. They just didn’t want to deal with the issue.
Aron: I want to get to a couple other issues quickly. The Transportation Trust Fund. You have until June to get a deal done. Are we going to get a Transportation Trust Fund?
Sweeney: I’m hoping so, Michael. I’ve spoken to the speaker about this. I’ve been speaking with my Republican colleagues in the Senate because we have to go into this with our eyes wide open realizing that if the governor was to veto a gas tax — and that’s what we’re talking about right now — that I need to make sure we have enough votes to override. So, you know, I would hope, I really would hope we can come to a solution.
Aron: Sen. Jennifer Beck, a Republican, keeps touting a plan to replenish the fund fully — at $1.6 billion — without hiking the gas tax. Is she just scoffing…
Sweeney: This is a serious issue.
Aron: She’s not serious?
Sweeney: No, she’s not serious. Her solution’s not real and we don’t need a $1.6 billion plan, we need a $2 billion plan. So listen, I was actually in a meeting when Sen. Beck said her solution was getting more money from the federal government in front of a whole bunch of mayors. So, I wish she would take it more seriously, but it is what it is.
Aron: I’ve only got a minute left. Phil Murphy declared his candidacy for governor. He put a $10 million marker down on the table in the form of a loan to his campaign. What message does that send to someone like you?
Sweeney: Something that I’ve known from the beginning, you know, that the guy’s serious about running for governor. He’s told people he was going to run and no one really believed he wasn’t running, Michael, when he created his nonprofits. I’m not going to say anything bad about Phil Murphy. I’ve met him, I like him, you know, and we’ll see what happens in the future.
Aron: When are you going to declare?
Sweeney: Well, I’m declaring I’m the president of the New Jersey State Senate and I’m doing my job right now, so I’m not even looking at that yet. It’s too soon.
Aron: After the election?
Sweeney: We’ll see.
Aron: Senate President Steve Sweeney, thank you for coming in.
Sweeney: Thank you, Michael.