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Senate Fails To Vote On Transportation Trust Fund, Pension Amendment

Steve Sweeney, still short of votes to override an expected Christie veto, accuses the governor of ‘auditioning for Donald Trump’s cabinet’

pension fund protest
Members of the public-worker unions rally in Trenton, calling for passage of the pension-funding constitutional amendment.

Tempers flared inside the State House following a day of inaction on key issues yesterday, with angry public workers showering lawmakers with boos at the end of the Senate’s voting session. Once the booing ended, Senate President Stephen Sweeney pointed the finger squarely at Gov. Chris Christie, accusing the governor of “still auditioning for Donald Trump's cabinet.”

When the dust settled, Sweeney and other lawmakers were no closer to ending their impasse with Christie over renewing the state’s nearly broke Transportation Trust Fund. And the public-workers were left with serious concerns that a proposed constitutional amendment on pension funding that they want to go before voters this fall may now get delayed for a full year.

A spokesman for Christie responded to Sweeney’s accusations by saying the governor “remains committed to reaching an amicable solution” on the TTF issue. But even that statement included a reference to significant tax cuts that Christie and other Republicans have been seeking this summer, circling back to the key disagreement that’s led to political gridlock on the TTF and now the stalling of the pension-funding amendment.

Lawmakers aren’t scheduled to return to Trenton again until next week, but there’s no reason right now to believe the impasse is any closer to ending despite a lengthy day of behind-the-scenes vote counting.

The reason the transportation-funding issue has become linked to the pension amendment this summer is the state’s tight budget outlook and concerns about high taxes. Rather than raise taxes or make deep spending cuts, the Christie administration has instead chosen not to make the full contributions into the public-employee pension system that have been calculated by actuaries and that Christie agreed to make in his signature 2011 law. That law required increased contributions to the system by public workers, in return for regular payments by the state. Once Christie went back on the agreement, it led public-worker unions to push for the constitutional amendment, which seeks voter approval for a schedule of ramped up pension payments that are designed to bring the pension system back into good health.

Sweeney (D-Gloucester) is sponsoring the proposed amendment, and it needs to be approved by the Senate just one more time by an August 8 deadline to get on the November ballot. But the Senate leader has been holding back that final vote during the ongoing impasse with Christie on transportation funding, saying he can’t be certain the amendment will be properly funded or would pass under current circumstances until the TTF issue is resolved.

The TTF is nearly broke, and Sweeney and other lawmakers support a 23-cent gas-tax hike to ensure funding is in place for road, bridge, and rail projects for another 10 years. But the Republican Christie has insisted that the Legislature pass a $1.6 billion sales-tax reduction at the same time to ensure overall “tax fairness” for New Jersey residents. The measure would cut the general sales tax from 7 percent to 6 percent. He’s also ordered a a shutdown of road, bridge, and rail projects throughout the state to save the TTF’s remaining funds for necessary projects and emergencies.

Concern about that $1.6 billion price tag led Sweeney and other Senate leaders to focus instead on a bipartisan TTF bill that was passed by the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee last week. That measure would hike the gas tax by 23 cents but also make several targeted tax cuts to appease some Republicans, including phasing out New Jersey’s estate tax and boosting a tax credit for low-wage workers.

Sweeney said yesterday that the tax cuts in the bipartisan bill, which would cost an estimated $896 million, are more affordable and could be enacted without jeopardizing the state’s ability to cover the increased pension contributions called for in the proposed amendment. But without enough votes to override Christie in the Senate among Democrats, he said he’s holding back a final vote on the bipartisan bill until enough Republicans step forward to guarantee an override.

Though Democrats control the Senate by a 24-16 margin, Jeff Van Drew (D-Cape May) and Shirley Turner (D-Mercer) have not supported the bipartisan bill. That’s left Sweeney and the Democrats in search of five votes from the GOP.

So far, they have Steve Oroho (R-Sussex) and Joseph Kyrillos (R-Monmouth) on board, and two GOP senators from Burlington County are also expected to support the bipartisan bill after a tax cut for veterans was inserted with their input. But it’s unclear right now if the Democrats will be able to coax one more vote out of Republicans in the Senate to shift the issue over to the Assembly, where the Democrats’ have a wider, 52-28 advantage.

When Sen. Nick Sacco (D-Hudson) didn’t make it to Trenton yesterday, it became clear that there would not be a vote on the TTF, which also meant holding back final approval of the pension-funding amendment.

Still, public workers came to Trenton in force earlier yesterday to hold a rally on the steps of the State House in support of the proposed amendment, and many stayed to watch the Senate’s voting session in the afternoon. After that session came to a close with no vote taken on the pension amendment, they sent loud boos down at the lawmakers as they left the Senate chambers.

Wendell Steinhauer, the president of the New Jersey Education Association, also issued a statement reminding Sweeney that he promised the pension amendment would go before voters this year. “Next year isn’t good enough,” said Steinhauer, who was one of several union leaders who led yesterday’s labor rally. “He needs to decide whether he’s going to lead or just roll over and be part of the problem.”

But Sweeney, speaking after the Senate voting session ended, said it’s Christie who deserves blame. Christie has now gotten directly involved in opposing the bipartisan TTF bill, and that now threatens the fate of the pension amendment, Sweeney said. “I want the pension amendment done more than anyone else. I am prime sponsor (of the resolution),” Sweeney said. “You can’t possibly make a decision to do that without knowing where you’re going with the TTF.”

He also predicted the political gridlock could last until after this year’s presidential election because of Christie’s close ties to Trump, the GOP’s firebrand presidential candidate.

"I actually think the governor is going to wait until after the presidential election to do something because he's still auditioning for Donald Trump's cabinet,” Sweeney said. “Signing any kind of a tax increase or being overridden on a tax increase won't be popular in his party."

Asked for a response, Brian Murray, Christie’s press secretary, said in a statement that the governor is still interested in finding a solution that “puts people to work” and “funds infrastructure investment in roads, bridges, and mass transit.”

But Murray’s statement also said Christie wants a deal that “represents tax fairness for all the people of New Jersey,” a reference to the tax cuts that have been at the center of the ongoing dispute. “The governor trusts that everyone involved is committed to the same goals," Murray said.

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