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Handing Christie an Easy Win

Why did the Democratic leadership line up behind the governor on pension and healthcare reform for public employees?

Credit: (Tim Larsen/Governor's Office)

Tomorrow, Republican Gov. Chris Christie is expected to sign the pension and health benefits overhaul that marks his greatest legislative victory in a ceremony carefully staged for YouTube and future campaign ads.

Flanking him, undoubtedly, will be not only Republican leaders, but also the state’s Democratic legislative leadership as well -- Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester), the Ironworkers Union leader who led the charge against the public employee unions, and Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-Essex). Look for Senator Brian Stack, the up-and-coming Hudson County Democratic power, off to the side.

Most likely missing from the happy photo, but there in political spirit, will be George Norcross III, the Democratic leader in South Jersey, and Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo, the Democratic power brokers whose backing put Sweeney and Oliver into leadership. Norcross and DiVincenzo made sure that the Democratic Senate and Assembly members whose campaigns they bankrolled provided the Democratic votes needed to put the bill over the top in what is ostensibly a Democratic-controlled legislature.

A New Majority Coalition

The Senate and Assembly votes on Sweeney’s pension and healthcare bill last week split the Democratic Party, fractured its traditional alliance with organized labor, and marked the emergence of a new majority coalition on critical issues that renders the outcome of November’s legislative elections secondary in importance.

The South Jersey-Essex-Hudson Democratic coalition that joined with Christie’s Republicans undoubtedly will be there for the governor again in December’s lame-duck session, when Christie goes for his next major legislative priorities -- passage of the Opportunity Scholarship Act (OSA) to provide taxpayer-funded vouchers for students in some urban districts, expansion of charter schools and either eliminating or watering down teacher tenure.

What has political experts and especially the 47 Democratic legislators who voted against the Sweeney-Oliver pension and health benefits bill perplexed is why Sweeney didn’t get more out of Christie in return.

Assembly Majority Leader Joseph Cryan (D-Union) and Assemblyman Thomas J. Giblin (D-Essex), an Operating Engineers union leader, said publicly Friday what many others have been saying privately: If Sweeney and Oliver were going to give Christie the victory over the unions he so fervently wanted, why didn’t they at least get some concessions on the budget in return?

"I don’t understand what they got out of all of this, other than angering their own base," said Jeff Tittel, the executive director of the New Jersey Sierra Club who opposed the bill. "Why didn’t they leverage it to get the millionaire’s tax or senior rebates or something they can point to? With the bill passed, they have no leverage over Christie at all."

The most highly publicized Christie concession in the pension and healthcare bill was a provision to prevent public workers, including teachers, college professors, police and firefighters, from seeking treatment from out-of-state medical providers, including hospitals. The proposal was dubbed "the Norcross provision" because critics believed it was designed to benefit Camden’s Cooper Medical Center, which Norcross chairs, and was the subject of an attack ad by the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) that ran in both the New York and Philadelphia TV markets.

Disgruntled Democrats moved with uncommon vigor to force Sweeney to remove the controversial provision, sending a message to Norcross; the provision will
not be in the final bill that will find its way to Christie’s desk.

The Democratic majority also used the battle over New Jersey Network (NJN) to send a message to Christie’s Essex Democratic allies. The Assembly Democratic resolution approved Thursday night blocked Christie’s plan to turn over NJN’s license to WNET-TV. It was aimed partly at Steve Adubato Sr., the Newark North Ward Democratic boss, who is aligned with Christie on charter schools and vouchers.

Adubato and DiVincenzo are allies, and Adubato’s son, Steven Adubato Jr., has been lobbying hard for WNET, which carries his company’s New Jersey programming. Adubato Jr. and his Caucus Educational Corp. would play an undefined role in developing WNET’s New Jersey programming. The Senate Democratic majority is expected to vote on a similar resolution early this week.

To most Democrats, however, it’s the budget that counts, and that’s where they feel Sweeney and Oliver dropped the ball.

A Democratic Budget

Just hours before the Assembly gave final passage to his pension and health benefits bill, Sweeney announced that he and Oliver would be introducing "a Democratic budget." The Sweeney-Oliver spending plan would include a millionaire’s tax, full formula funding for every school district, restoration of the most stringent Medicaid and FamilyCare eligibility cuts, tax breaks for senior citizens, and more money for police, for family planning clinics and to keep New Jersey Network (NJN) afloat.

What it didn’t include -- because Sweeney and Oliver hadn’t talked to Christie about it -- was any guarantee that any of it would be enacted.

In fact, Christie wasted no time Friday in denouncing the Sweeney-Oliver bill.

"The proposed budget from the Democrats is just more of the same unrealistic, pie-in-the-sky, fantasy budgeting they brought to New Jersey for the eight years before we arrived," Christie declared. "Instead of continuing to put New Jersey on strong fiscal footing, this proposal reaffirms the Democrats’ commitment to job-killing tax increases and an unrepentant addiction to spending."

Christie’s treasurer, Andrew Sidamon-Eristoff, quickly clamped down on Democratic spending plans by announcing that the governor would refuse to certify the higher revenue number that the non-partisan Office of Legislative Services (OLS) had suggested, which will force Democrats to take $289 million in "Democratic initiatives" out of the budget bill they introduce tomorrow.

Christie also made it clear that he would veto the millionaire’s tax and, therefore, the more than $500 million in programs it would fund. He has promised anti-abortion advocates that he will not restore the $7.5 million in family planning funding that would draw down federal dollars on a 9-1 basis, and he and Sidamon-Eristoff have said they will let NJN “go black” even if the legislature refuses to certify his plan to hand over the network to WNET-13 in New York. Christie could decide to leave in more money for suburban school districts or senior citizen property tax relief, but that will be strictly Christie’s call.

Christie’s vetoes cannot be overridden without a two-thirds majority, which is out of the question because Christie and GOP leaders exercise ironclad control over their caucus. When Christie wanted a 100 percent Republican vote on the pension and health benefits bill, Assemblymen Vincent Polistina (R-Atlantic), who is running for the Senate, and John Amodeo (R-Atlantic), a member of the Operating Engineers union, had to fall in line.

That makes much of the upcoming week’s budget maneuvers a political exercise designed to persuade Democrats that Sweeney and Oliver are "real Democrats," despite accusations to the contrary by some union leaders. It would also allow Democratic legislative candidates to run in November complaining about Christie cuts to school aid and other popular programs.

"If the governor wishes to dismiss out-of-hand a balanced budget that does not raise taxes, funds our schools, provides property tax relief to seniors and protects our most vulnerable without even waiting to read it, that is his right," Sweeney declared. "But that is irresponsible and an affront to the working families who are shouldering the burden of his past budget decisions."

An Insult to the Working Class

To many of the state’s union leaders, Sweeney’s actions on the pension and health benefits bill were the real "affront to the working class."

The public employee unions could have lived with legislation requiring their members to pay more toward their pensions in exchange for the right to sue the state if it failed to make its required pension payment; pension rules have always been set legislatively. But Sweeney’s decision to put in a bill setting healthcare contributions legislatively took away any incentive for Christie to negotiate with the unions on that score and set New Jersey inexorably on a path to join Wisconsin, Ohio and Massachusetts in stripping public employees of the right to bargain over health care issues.

Christie asserted during a triumphant 18-minute interview with David Gregory on Meet the Press yesterday that he made concessions in negotiations with Sweeney and Oliver on the pension and health benefits bill. “Everybody’s got to put skin in the game,” Christie said. "I gave on things I wanted."

In addition to the so-called Norcross provision, these included the four-year phase-in of a sliding scale for health premium contributions ranging from 3 percent to 35 percent based on income, rather than the immediate imposition of a 30 percent health premium share for all workers that Christie originally proposed last September, and a sunset provision allowing the resumption of collective bargaining on healthcare issues after four years.

Union leaders, however, regarded it as inexcusable that Sweeney decided to bypass the collective bargaining process that he relies upon as an Ironworkers Union leader in order to enact legislation to require their members to pay thousands of dollars more toward their healthcare and pension premiums.

The question is what union leaders – or disgruntled Democrats -- can do about it, and what Sweeney gets out of his leadership role in the pension and health benefits battle. Sweeney has made no secret of his desire to run for governor against Christie in 2013, and clearly regards his crusade since 2005 to get public employees to contribute more toward their pensions and healthcare as the issue that differentiates him from other Democrats -- the union leader willing to take on the unions. But by the end of last week, Sweeney was more popular among Republican voters than the Democratic voters he would have to win in a contested primary. Senate Majority Leader Barbara Buono (D-Middlesex), another potential 2013 candidate, sought to establish herself as a clear alternative to Sweeney with a 13-minute speech opposing the pension and health benefits bill on the Senate floor Monday She also delivered an equally strong speech to the union protest rally at the Statehouse Thursday, which had union leaders coming up to shake her hand with a fervent "Thank you, Barbara."

November Elections

The real question is how the pension and health benefits bill will play into the November legislative elections.

Democrats won a favorable map in the redistricting commission process in April that virtually guaranteed they would retain their 24-16 control of the Senate and 47-33 edge in the Assembly. In fact, some political insiders suggested that the lack of truly competitive districts made it easier for Sweeney to push his pension and health benefits bill because it would be harder for angry union leaders to retaliate.

Sweeney believes that union leaders will eventually conclude that a Democratic-controlled legislature is still better than a legislature fully controlled by Christie and the GOP. As Sweeney told reporters after the Senate Budget Committee vote on June 16, "If they want to turn the legislature over to the Republicans, that’s their choice."

While the Essex and Hudson County Democrats who voted for the Sweeney bill are in overwhelmingly Democratic districts, the NJEA and the public employee unions may want to try to defeat one or two South Jersey Democrats in November -- a strategy that would send a message to Norcross, Sweeney and the other Democratic leaders who opposed them without jeopardizing Democratic control of the legislature.

Senator Jim Whelan (D-Atlantic) already is facing a difficult race because Atlantic City Democratic Mayor Lorenzo Langford has entered the field as an independent. Sen. Fred Madden and Assemblyman Paul Moriarty, both Camden Democrats, represent a somewhat competitive Fourth District, and Moriarty was one of two Democrats to join with Sweeney in his original 2006 call for public employees to pay more toward their pension and healthcare premiums.

Then there’s Sweeney himself, whose home county of Gloucester elected two Republican freeholders last year. The NJEA by itself with no other union support nearly upended another Democratic Senate president, John Lynch, in what was considered an impregnable Democratic district in Middlesex Co. in 1991 in retaliation for his support for a pension bill the teachers union opposed.

Meanwhile, Republicans are preparing to target Democrats in the new Essex and Morris County 27th District headed by former Governor Richard Codey, the man Sweeney ousted as Senate president, and the 38th District, whose slate is headed by Senator Robert Gordon (D-Bergen), for voting against the pension and health benefits bill.

The real danger for Democrats is that disgruntled teachers, police, firefighters and state and local government workers stay home, endangering even the Democrats who voted their way in the pension and health benefits battle.

"This is a fight we didn’t need," said one Democratic strategist. "Sweeney should have passed the pension bill, which everybody supported, and let Christie take the heat for the increase in health benefit payments. Christie said he wasn’t afraid to take on the unions at the bargaining table. Why did he [Sweeney] turn us into the targets?"

Mark J. Magyar teaches labor studies at Rutgers University. A veteran Statehouse reporter, he served as deputy policy chief in the Whitman administration and as policy director for the independent Daggett for Governor campaign in 2009.

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