Arguably the two most daunting budget issues facing the state are the underpaid public worker pension fund and the dead broke Transportation Trust Fund to repair roads and bridges. The man who stands at the fulcrum of both is New Jersey’s most powerful Democrat, state Senate President Steve Sweeney. He sat down with NJTV News Anchor Mary Alice Williams to discuss these issues.
Williams: Thank you for being with us.
Sweeney: Thanks for having me.
Williams: Okay, so lets start with the road and bridge repairs. Nothing’s been since July 1 when the governor halted all state construction. You told The Record, and let me get this right, that it’s unlikely a plan to fill the Transportation Trust Fund will come together before the November election. Really? It’s going to take that long and what’s the cost?
Sweeney: I hope I’m wrong, but you know what I’m seeing and the way things are progressing, I don’t think I am. We’re in the middle of August and we don’t have a solution. The Assembly speaker agreed to a plan with the Senate and abandoned the plan. He made a deal with the governor that put a $2 billion hole in the budget, so we said we can’t do that.
Williams: By agreeing to drop the sales tax by one percent.
Sweeney: Yeah, and so we agreed that couldn’t happen so we came back to an agreement on the almost identical bill that we originally did. And just today basically the speaker signaled that it’s too hard, we need to do a summit. And it’s like waving the white flag again. I am like wait a minute. We agreed to do this now — twice. I’m working my butt off with my colleges in the Senate to try to get enough votes to absolutely have a veto proof override because then if you have to negotiate — if the administration’s willing to negotiate — you’re negotiating from strength not weakness.
Williams: Well you’ve got a veto proof override in the Senate, at least the numbers for it, but the Assembly also has to do that.
Sweeney: We don’t have it yet, but we’re close.
Williams: You’re one vote away. You need 27 you have 26, right?
Williams: Speaker Prieto says that what you’re saying — and what you’ve just said now which you’ve repeated earlier — is unproductive.
Sweeney: Well what’s unproductive is the fact the Assembly leadership’s not doing anything to get the bill done that they agreed to do for a second time — and by the way it’s his bill. So we didn’t go into this not knowing what we were trying to do or what we were trying to accomplish. When we sat down for a second time and agreed to a joint plan, I’ve been working since we’ve agreed to try to get that joint plan accomplished in my house and the speaker just announces today, well we need to do a summit. Well, we need to at least try to accomplish the plan we agreed to do in both houses.
Williams: Is this all on Governor Christie?
Sweeney: I think a lot of it’s Governor Christie because of the unrealistic expectations of cuts beyond what we can afford. Look, we put close to $900 million worth of tax cuts on the table and we did it in a way we could stage it and afford it.
Williams: What do you say to frustrated citizens, especially when it comes to the transportation, the crumbling roads and bridges that it’s the Assembly’s fault, it’s the governor’s fault, that you’re not getting anything done. How do you respond to that?
Sweeney: Well, it’s frustrating. How do you respond? It’s very dysfunctional and it shouldn’t be this way. We’ve come up with a plan, two houses came up with a plan that we agreed on, now for the second time. Now, we can’t afford $1.9 billion in tax cuts and that’s where the governor’s at.
Williams: Lets go to the public workers pensions. Monday was the deadline to get a constitutional amendment on the ballot that would have guaranteed certain pension payments. You pulled it, it didn’t happen on Monday. The NJEA has opened fire verbally on you. Why aren’t you allowing the pensions to be funded?
Sweeney: Because I care more about it than anyone I think, because I don’t want it to fail. Look Mary Alice, my whole career in the Senate…
Williams: So is that what you’re saying? You didn’t put it there because you thought it would fail?
Sweeney: There’s no question that it would fail because if you read all the polling when people think that you’re going to have to raise taxes to pay for the pension, they vote no. Informed voters vote no. I’ve seen the polling. More important to me is to make sure we get the payment done, and by the way, we made the payment for this year and we’ve budgeted the payment for next year, it’s not a crisis.
Williams: You’ve call the Fraternal Order of Police and the NJEA, you’ve accused them of extortion by saying that they’re going to pull campaign cash from you if you don’t get this thing done.
Sweeney: They have every right to withhold donations to candidates or elected officials. What crossed the line in my mind is when you target a specific action that you say that unless you do ‘x’ I won’t give you something. It would be like me going to you and saying, “I’m going to pass this piece of legislation, but you got to give me $5,000 in a campaign contribution.” You know what that’s called? Extortion.
Williams: But what is the difference between that and somebody saying, “I don’t want give you campaign money because I just don’t agree with you?”
Sweeney: There’s nothing wrong with that. There’s nothing wrong with disagreeing. But when you tie it to a specific government action, an official action of government, that’s where it crosses the line.
Williams: You’re running for governor in 2017, whether you’ve officially announced it or not. How’s this going to affect you?
Sweeney: Listen, I’m obviously not worrying about 2017 for one reason. If I was focused on that I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing. I’m standing up for what I think is right for the taxpayers of the state. And look, when you do things, when you’re actually taking actions and doing things, you’re going to make some people happy, you’re going to make some people unhappy. But my goal at the end of the day is to make sure that we’re on a track of funding the pension system, because I’ve been the one fighting it since 2006.
Williams: State Senate President Steve Sweeney, thanks for being here.
Sweeney: Thanks for having me.