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Opinion: The Fear Factor and Sweeney’s Decision to Hold His Pension Amendment

Was Senate president worried that voters might defeat the ballot question come November, giving the governor a straight shot at deciding funding levels?

carl golden
Carl Golden

Conventional wisdom has it that state Senate President Steve Sweeney’s signature legislative initiative — a constitutional amendment to guarantee an adequate level of funding for the public-employee pension system — has turned to ashes, incinerated by intra-party strife, an obstinate governor, and a prolonged and costly stalemate over reauthorizing the Transportation Trust Fund.

But conventional wisdom is exactly that. It’s a path-of-least-resistance reaction to a specific set of circumstances and designed to produce a clear, logical, and plausible explanation for political developments.

In the case of Sweeney’s decision to postpone consideration of his proposed amendment for a least a year, his rationale was quickly accepted as the conventional wisdom.

It was, he said, fiscally irresponsible to constitutionally commit the state to a level of pension-system contributions in the absence of an assessment of the long-term impact on the state budget of the cost of the Trust Fund renewal and the accompanying billion dollars worth of tax breaks to make the 23-cent-per-gallon gas tax increase more politically palatable.

Perhaps.

As reasonable and sound as Sweeney’s position appears to be, it is equally likely that his decision was driven by a concern — if not outright fear — that the amendment would be defeated by voters in November, an outcome that would effectively end further efforts to mandate a pension contribution amount and place the sole power to establish the funding level in the hands of the governor.

Sweeney faced two choices, neither one particularly appealing: Incur the wrath of public-employee unions by delaying legislative consideration of the amendment or push ahead and risk a damaging personal and political defeat at the hands of the voters.

Invective rained down on the Senate president, along with a threat from the New Jersey Education Association to punish Democratic candidates by withholding campaign contributions. Sweeney was guilty of a betrayal, it said, and the association intended to use its considerable financial clout to exact retribution.

An angry Sweeney reacted by accusing the NJEA of extortion and bribery and demanded an investigation by the attorney general. His heat-of-the-moment response, which he probably wishes he could take back, was universally dismissed as less than serious.

There is ample time for Sweeney to mollify organized labor, reingratiate himself, and convince union leaders that as difficult as it is to wait another year, the effect of a defeat at the polls would be a far more bitter pill to swallow.

A loss in November would, moreover, undermine the effectiveness of labor organizations in their dealings with the Legislature. A negative expression from voters and taxpayers would signal a diminution of power and produce a reluctance to unquestioningly support labor’s agenda.

While Sweeney may have had access to polling data revealing a lack of support, his stance suggests there was a concern in his mind that the anticipated increased voter turnout this year will be driven by what is shaping up to be one of the more vitriolic campaigns in recent memory, potentially producing an anger directed at government in general and spending in particular.

Casting a “nay” on the pension-payment amendment would be a catharsis for some, a decision not based on the merits of the idea as sound public policy, but as a backlash against a government that a significant portion of the population believes is beholden to special interests at the expense of the public interest.

Sweeney is a seasoned and shrewd pol and it is, therefore, surprising that he made no effort to bring union leaders together, share his concerns with them, and reach agreement that a legislative delay was the better of two lousy options.

He could have reiterated his unflinching support for a constitutional guarantee, while blaming the governor and Republican legislators for refusing to reach a compromise to reauthorize the Trust Fund.

The uncertainty of the outcome of the Trust Fund debate and its fiscal and tax implications provided a justification for Sweeney to delay action on the amendment and support his view that the state budget could not absorb the additional spending or the potential loss of tax revenue involved.

By tying the two issues together, Sweeney projected an image as a leader who is concerned with the overall fiscal health of government and is not the free-spending Democratic stereotype. Cloaking his decision to delay the amendment in a need for budgetary constraints was not a politically disingenuous act, but a recognition of sobering reality.

Whatever short-term cost to Sweeney in terms of the enmity of labor groups can be mitigated in what remains of the current legislative session as well as in 2017. He is still the Senate president and remains in full control of the flow of legislation to the floor, including, obviously, proposals of interest or benefit to labor.

Should he become a candidate for his party’s gubernatorial nomination next year, he will be in a position to rebut his opponents by arguing he had the best interests of the state, the taxpayers, and organized labor at heart. A retreat is not a defeat; it’s a strategic recalibration that will lead to eventual success.

In this instance, the conventional wisdom may work in Sweeney’s favor.

Carl Golden served as press secretary for Republican Gov. Thomas Kean for eight years and as communications director for Republican Gov. Christie Whitman for three years. He is currently a senior contributing analyst with the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at Stockton University.

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