POLITICS & GOVERNMENT

Sweeney draws budget battle lines with Path to Progress rollout

BY Brenda Flanagan, Senior Correspondent |

This post has been updated to include a statement from Governor Phil Murphy.

With some bipartisan backing, Senate President Steve Sweeney rolled out his whole Path to Progress agenda — 27 bills — plus, two constitutional amendments Sweeney vowed he’d use sort of like legislative nuclear options if he gets no cooperation from Gov. Phil Murphy.

“It’s time to fix New Jesey in a way that’s going to be meaningful and long-lasting,” Sweeney said.

Sweeney’s mission: save property tax-payers billions by reforming health care and rescue New Jersey from its deep public pension debt crisis.

“And until we address these issues, we’re never going to get reform in this state. We’re facing a $3 billion deficit by 2023,” Sweeney said.

“Here’s the honest issue of what we have to do in order to make sure — in order to make sure we have people who are counting on those pensions and health care, that it’s there,” said Sen. Steve Oroho.

The first reform bill would create a hybrid 401K public pension system for workers with less that five years of public service — excluding police and firefighters — which Sweeney claims could save $28 billion over 30 years. The second reform bill would merge two health care plans and shift all public workers from so-called platinum, to gold plans, as described under Obamacare, which Sweeney estimated could save $2 billion annually.

“Where every single dollar would be forced to lower property taxes. So if School District A, if they got $3 million in health care savings, we’d be required to reduce their property taxes by $3 million dollars,” Sweeney said. “These reforms will give us the ability not to raise taxes going forward.”

At the same time, Sweeney doubled down on his opposition to Gov. Murphy’s request to expand the millionaire’s tax — money Murphy would use to boost property tax relief. That’s a non-starter for Sweeney, who will keep the pension and health care constitutional amendments handy in his back pocket and go around the governor, if necessary.

“We’d like to work with everyone to come to a solution. But if necessary, we will go to the voters and give them the opportunity to have their voices heard,” Sweeney said. “But I can tell you, we’re going to push very, very hard for pension and health care reform by June 30.”

“Our problems, and pensions in particular, have been engrained by years of politicians putting short-term electoral gain before well-known and acknowledged long-term needs,” Governor Murphy said in a statement. “I was elected to break this cycle, and I am no less determined to do so today than ever. I will carefully review the bills introduced today to see where we can find common ground, but the bottom line is that savings alone will not help us meet the entirety of our obligations. I remain eager to work with those who share our goals.”

Opposition is already organizing. CWA union leader Hetty Rosenstein accused Sweeney of attacking collective bargaining, protecting millionaires and demonizing public workers.

“This is his go-to moment. When there’s attention paid to what really is happening, economically, just push the public workers out there and make them a piñata,” Rosenstein said.

Other bills on Sweeney’s long list of cost-saving measures also included: merging all school districts into K-12 systems; capping sick leave payouts; sharing services among local governments; and New Jersey paying for placements over $55,000 for school districts with students who have Extraordinary Special Education needs.

“The dollars for Extraordinary Education was affecting these districts — one or two kids in a district could blow their budget apart,” said Sen. Joe Pennacchio.

The two constitutional amendments are still being drafted, and Sweeney said he’d welcome the governor’s input, even as their relationship becomes more strained.