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Long, Winding Road for Sweeney’s and Christie’s Education-Funding Plans

Getting either to the Legislature, never mind passed, is proving to be a tough challenge

state Assemblyman David Wolfe (R-Ocean)
Assemblyman David Wolfe (R-Ocean)

Since Gov. Chris Christie and state Sen. Steve Sweeney proposed competing plans for remaking school funding in New Jersey, it’s been more talk than action.

Both Christie and Sweeney have gone on public campaigns to muster support for their proposals, each winning their share of endorsements for what are radically different paths.

But there has been little to no legislative action on either plan. That’s partly because some heavyweight topics like pensions and transportation are under debate, but also because there are questions as to whether either proposal has the political legs to get enacted.

Christie’s plan to equalize funding across the state took one step forward last week, when Assembly Republicans filed the legislation that would put his proposal on the ballot as a constitutional amendment.

One of the prime sponsors of the proposed resolution, state Assemblyman David Wolfe (R-Ocean), said he knows the proposal is a “long shot” when it comes to winning support — or even progressing much — in either the Assembly or Senate, both controlled by Democrats.

“I can do the math of how many Democrats there are,” Wolfe said yesterday.

But since it is also sponsored by state Assemblyman Jon Bramnick (R-Union), the Assembly minority leader, the Republican proposal is at least meant to continue the debate in the Legislature, Wolfe said.

“We are really looking to provoke a discussion,” he said. “This is a different alternative.”

There has been no shortage of such debate, as both Christie and Sweeney have been barnstorming the state to promote their plans.

At least up until last week’s Republican National Convention, Christie had been using both the town-hall format and the kitchen-table chat, so far in mostly sympathetic quarters.

Sweeney, along with state Sen. Teresa Ruiz and other Democrats, has held roundtables in both urban and suburban communities — each time highlighting the superintendents and other educators backing his proposal, which would call for a state commission to devise a more equitable funding system based on the current formula.

But the Senate president’s proposal is also waiting — and waiting – for legislative action. The proposal this summer did pass through the Senate Education Committee, chaired by Ruiz, but it has yet to be posted for full Senate vote. A companion bill in the Assembly has yet to even go through committee.

And even if both bills passed, the questions mount as to whether Christie would support Sweeney’s proposal. The governor indicated last month that he was not entirely against Sweeney’s proposal, but questioned if it went far enough in comparison to his own.

Last week, Sweeney acknowledged his proposal is no slam-dunk in the Legislature, either, and he said he is aiming for a fall vote. “It will likely be a battle,” he said at a roundtable held in his legislative district.

Timing matters on this debate, since Christie has just a year left as governor, and any vote on his constitutional proposal —as unlikely as that is — would surely happen after he leaves office.

Sweeney has his own political ambitions, of course, as a Democratic frontrunner for governor next year, and a campaign would come just as his funding proposal would be coming under intense scrutiny. Under his current plan, the commission would issue a report by June 2017, at which time the Legislature would vote up or down.

The prospect of such a contentious vote in the middle of the gubernatorial election might appear slim, but Sweeney has maintained it would happen.

Wolfe also said yesterday that his and other Republicans’ aim is to keep the topic on the front burner. He cited other long-running Republican proposals to remake funding that should be considered as well.

“Let’s look at all the proposals out there, and not just assume we can continue to keep getting what we got last year,” he said.

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