POLITICS & GOVERNMENT

Sweeney calls on Murphy to meet and hash out legislative issues

BY Brenda Flanagan, Senior Correspondent |

Senate President Steve Sweeney hobnobbed with business leaders in Somerville while the clocked ticked down on a couple of landmark legislative issues: legalizing recreational marijuana and raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour. Both rank near the top of Gov. Phil Murphy’s to-do list, but he and Sweeney continue to disagree over critical details and blame each other for delays. On Friday, Sweeney made an offer.

“It’s unfortunate, but, you know, we haven’t spoken in a couple months. Hopefully that’ll get resolved, and we can move forward, because I’ve read the governor’s comments where he said, ‘We can resolve this in an hour if we get in a room.’ I don’t necessarily disagree. So, how about, ‘Governor. Let’s get in a room,'” Sweeney said.

A source in the governor’s office says Sweeney, Murphy and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin met for dinner in early October, canceled a November meeting, but have more meetings scheduled for December, January and February, ahead of budget season. Whether that might de-escalate any lingering personal tension between Sweeney and Murphy is unknown. Earlier this week, the governor slapped back when Sweeney accused him of showboating over the minimum wage issue, while Sweeney sat through a hearing on legalizing marijuana.

“I think we sent a bill over on minimum wage in May — so that was six months ago. So this notion that we’re not engaged, we’re not focused on the substance, and we’re just focused on the show, could not be farther from the truth,” Murphy said Tuesday at a press conference.

Murphy still supports a clean bill for raising the minimum wage with no carve outs, while Sweeney wants to exempt farm and seasonal labor and youth workers. Speaker Craig Coughlin’s working on a bill that might help resolve the issue. They also disagree over how much to tax legalized recreational marijuana. Murphy prefers a higher tax, up to 25 percent. The bill approved by a joint legislative budget committee this week includes a rate of up to 14 percent. And there’s disagreement over creating a commission to oversee the new cannabis marketplace.

“I’m willing to talk to the governor about it, but the full-time commission needs to be in place when you’re creating it — a brand new industry from its infancy,” Sweeney said.

Another potential clash looms, as lawmakers look to the governor’s second budget proposal. The first budget battle came close to shutting down state government before Murphy and the Legislature agreed on raising $1.7 billion in taxes. Sweeney’s subsequently spent months pushing his plan to save money and fix the state pension fund. Raising taxes is not on his agenda.

“We are in a crisis in this state, and if we don’t address this now, it might be too late,” Sweeney said.

The next legislative session is Dec. 17th. Lawmakers might vote on a recreational marijuana bill. If there’s a meeting. If there’s an agreement.