Senate president: shutdown should have never happened

Gov. Chris Christie and Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto were the prominent public players in the budget drop drama, but a third member of the power triangle in Trenton played a pivotal role behind closed doors. Senate President Steve Sweeney joins NJTV News Chief Political Correspondent Michael Aron.

Aron: Senator, in this budget battle we’ve been through this past couple of weeks, you ended up winning in a way. You got the 73 items the Democrats added into the budget, lots of social safety net programs and school funding, but then the governor turned around and lined item vetoed some language out of the budget. Were you surprised that he did that?

Sweeney: We never had an agreement on line Michael, we had agreement on the numbers and the numbers are there and that’s the most important thing that the dollars are there. And I read some of the language in line items where originally the $25 million for pre-K only could go to 35 districts, but they opened it up for other districts. Most importantly, there’s this $25 million to expand pre-K which is a priority for us.

Aron: So, years ago you were very angry when he lined item some stuff, this year you’re not.

Sweeney: We got everything we asked for financially in the budget. I wrote an op-ed saying this is the best budget we’ve had in 10 years and I challenge anybody to say anything different. This was a wonderful budget for Democrats.

Aron: The speaker is angry about this, he said the governor broke his word on this budget language.

Sweeney: Listen, I am not going to defend the budget with the governor. All I know is that we had an agreement on the spending, there was never an agreement on the language and the spending stayed in place, Michael. There’s money for rape crisis centers, EFO [education opportunity funds], TAG, there’s tuition aid grants, there’s funding for the rape crisis center. We had a young woman that was here in Essex that said if we didn’t get this funding, the rape crisis center in Essex would’ve closed in Newark in 60 days. So, we focused on priorities. The money is there, that’s the most important thing. For me, it was school funding and for the first time in eight or nine years, we are finally starting to run the formula the way it should be.

Aron: Let me just give people an idea of the language that he line-item vetoed out. The one you just said, pre-K money, you only wanted it to go to at-risk students and he broadened it so that the money will get to more Republican districts. Low energy heating assistance, you wanted those who qualify for that program to also get a $90 boost in their monthly food stamp allotment. He took that out. You wanted to raise the family cap on welfare payments so that changing 20 years of policy in the state, when the family has a baby they don’t get any additional welfare, he took that out. He enforced that, so that new child still no additional welfare payment. Were you surprised by any of these?

Sweeney: Michael, we never had an agreement on the language, we had an agreement on the money. We should be focusing on the fact that we have $350 million of new spending dollars. There’s the most money we’ve added to school funding in the eight years that I’ve been here. New dollars, not just maintaining things. And we’ve added dollars to programs like legal services that matter to people like me. There is a whole host of programs that are funded. He took language out, we never had a deal on the language. And look what we had an agreement on, we kept. What we didn’t have an agreement on, we didn’t keep. There was another thing for the Meadowlands tax sharing agreement, that was something that was very important to the speaker. The money was there, it’s just not in perpetuity, so we will have to go back at it next year.

Aron: The speaker said the governor broke his word on those line item veto language issues. The Governor’s Office put out a statement Wednesday, “The governor kept his word. He agreed to 73 specific budget requests. The governor never agreed to sign an unbalanced budget by preserving every additional spending requests sneakily tucked into the budget.” He’s saying that you can’t really afford these things that the language would have engendered. Do you agree with that?

Sweeney: Look, I don’t agree with the stuff that he line-itemed out, but it was more important to get the funding for pre-K, and by the way, it can go into Democrat districts too, not just Republican districts. It’s important that we got the additional funding for it, Michael. For me, there’s things like the SNAP program, we will come back with a new governor and we will get that put in place because that was a priority. But look, there was 73 line items that he held up that I was talking about, that Sen. Loretta Weinberg held up, that we all talked about were going to be preserved if we pass the budget. They were preserved.

Aron: And they were what’s most important to you.

Sweeney: Absolutely.

Aron: The shutdown caused some state workers to lose at least Monday’s pay, and if they worked at motor vehicles or state parks, maybe some Saturday pay. I have been reading this week that the Department of Labor and Workforce Development is telling these people that if they want to get paid for that day, they have to file for unemployment? That sounds bureaucratically burdensome.

Sweeney: It’s not necessary in our mind. We are going to pass a bill coming Thursday that basically says anybody that lost work because of the shutdown that they should be paid. The money is in the budget, Michael. We weren’t planning on a shutdown and we shouldn’t have had a shutdown, so if we didn’t have a shutdown those workers would have went to work on Saturday and they would’ve got paid for Saturday. They would’ve went to work Monday and would’ve got paid for Monday, so I think they should be paid and we’re going to pass the legislation in the Senate on Thursday and then we are going to go talk to the governor to see if we can work something out.

Aron: The governor said the Legislature wouldn’t have come in this summer, couldn’t deal with Horizon because it would never come in during the summer of an election year. You’re coming in this Thursday.

Sweeney: And we had no problem dealing with Horizon either at the end of the day, Michael. Even Sen. Joe Vitale did a very good balance bill and protected Horizon but going to gave it more oversight. We should’ve never had a shutdown. Horizon wouldn’t meet with us and that was unfortunate.

Aron: You had an op-ed this week which reflecting on the shutdown, you blamed Horizon. Yous said it could have been done a week before the deadline if Horizon had come to the table.

Sweeney: They made a decision that they were only going to deal with the speaker of New Jersey Assembly, and not deal with the Senate at all. Sen. Vitale tried to reach them for at least 10 days. I reached out through one of their people on a Tuesday and said please have the CEO call me. Now, no one called me, Michael. On Sunday, I demanded a meeting publicly, they appear on Monday and with one hour, one hour, we had the framework of an agreement piece of legislation. It was unnecessary, there should’ve never been a shutdown. We passed a bill that they could live with. We could’ve done that on Tuesday, we could’ve done that on Wednesday. Am I upset about the fact that Horizon strategically decided not to come to the table? Yes. I really appreciate Bob Marino did come when I called him publicly to come to a meeting with the speaker. And again Michael, when you take a strategy of we’re only going to deal with one camp and not talk to the other, look Horizon became a part of the budget conversation because the governor made it a part of the budget conversation and I cared about those $350 million of adds, I care about the rape crisis center in Newark, I care about the programs for pre-K, for special ed. So Michael, for people who put a budget on his desk knowing he would line item everything out, what were they doing so they can point a finger and blame him? Tell people wait a year? I wasn’t going to let people wait a year.

Aron: So what you’re saying is that Horizon was central to getting this done, that the political branches couldn’t do it on their own without the company’s involvement?

Sweeney: Yes. But we wanted their involvement for one reason, we don’t want to hurt the company. We wanted their involvement, we wanted their input and when they gave us their input, think about it again, one hour meeting then drafting a bill and we had it all done in the same day. There was no reason for a shutdown.

Aron: Bob Marino was the key ingredient in getting that done.

Sweeney: Yes, because we wanted that input from the company, Joe Vitale had asked for 10 days prior to when we did the budget hearing. So my point, Michael, is they made a strategy decision that they were just not going to be a part of it. And Vinny Prieto says this all the time, its a three-legged stool and you can’t get anything done without all three legs. Well, why would it be different in excluding the Senate? The Senate had to be part of the conversation too and the Senate didn’t want to hurt Horizon either, and we didn’t hurt Horizon at the end of the day. We came up with a balanced budget that hits all of the priorities the Democrats care about, its the best Democrat budget we had in 10 years.

Aron: Sen. Steve Sweeney thanks very much.

Sweeney: Thank you.