Sweeney abandons plan for veto override on emergency assistance bill

BY Brenda Flanagan, Senior Correspondent |

An embarrassment for Gov. Murphy was narrowly averted Thursday. Senate President Steve Sweeney stood ready to lead Democrats in the first-ever override of fellow Democrat Murphy — an outright rebellion. It’s all over Murphy’s veto of S-1965 in January. Sweeney sponsored the measure to boost emergency funding for the homeless, but Murphy killed it over worry about the expense, citing “… the long-term financial implications of the bill.”

Sweeney had planned an override, but at the 11th hour, Murphy scrambled offering to work out a compromise.

“I absolutely had the votes. Not even close. But I’m willing to compromise to get something done. But it needs to be done quickly. It’s February, vetoed the bill in January,” said Sweeney.

Sweeney said he’s still holding an override card in case he has to.

“Listen, I would prefer not to, but this is something I feel — it’s very personal, because we’re dealing with the most vulnerable people in this state. You’re dealing with people with disabilities, you’re dealing with people with mental health issues, and, you know, these are the people, is what government is supposed to be for,” Sweeney said.

An override by fellow Democrats would deal Murphy a serious political blow as he struggles to build a budget. Even the possibility of an override sent a frisson through the State House, where New Jersey’s Legislature hasn’t successfully voted to override a governor since 1997. That’s when Republicans strong-armed Christie Whitman’s veto of a partial birth abortion ban. Sweeney and Murphy have often tangled over budget priorities, and an override by his own party looked ominous for the governor.

“People say I am, and I am, fiscally conservative. The Republicans support this, so if you’re going to be progressive then you need to stand up and do the right thing for the poor,” Sweeney said.

The Office of Legislative Services estimated Sweeney’s bill could dramatically expand eligibility for the emergency housing assistance program by “possibly tens of thousands of households”. It aided 1,693 New Jersey residents per month last year.

It’s tough to put a number on how much more an expansion would actually cost the state; Sweeney claims about $100 million while administration sources estimate it could be double that.

But is this really about the money? Sweeney has pointed out that the governor’s vetoed eight bills so far, more than half of them sponsored by Sweeney.

Thursday, the Sweeney agreed to Murphy’s request to hold off on an override — at least for now.

“I think the administration recognized that the $200 million number is not accurate, and I’m more than willing to work with them to come to a solution as long as it’s done very quick. I’m giving the administration to give us a bill, or work with us on a bill, so I would expect one way or another by the 14th of March we’ll either have a bill or we’re doing an override,” Sweeney said.

Murphy now has time to produce an acceptable compromise, and Sweeney still holds the override card.