Sweeney: Governor Has Three Weeks to Reach Terms on Homeless Aid

Colleen O'Dea | February 22, 2019 | Politics
At last minute, Senate President pulls vote to override Murphy’s recent veto of bill loosening eligibility rules for people in danger of losing their housing

Senate President Steve Sweeney
Gov. Phil Murphy temporarily escaped a potentially embarrassing veto override by his own party by agreeing to work with Senate Democrats on legislation to provide emergency housing aid to some of the neediest New Jerseyans.

But Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) said he is giving the administration only three weeks to reach a compromise or face the possible override of Murphy’s absolute veto of S-1965, Sweeney’s bill that would have allowed people receiving cash public assistance, formerly known as welfare, to get 12-to-18 months of emergency housing aid every seven years if they need it.

“I have a Senate session on March 14 and we will either have a bill on his desk or we are going to override the veto,” said Sweeney following yesterday’s Senate session. He added that he will call for an override vote “if I have to, I would prefer not to.”

Sweeney had scheduled an override vote for the session, but pulled it off the board list at the last minute. He said it wasn’t because he would not have had enough votes to override the January 31 veto — the bill had passed the Senate last June in a bipartisan 35-0 vote and only 27 votes are needed in the Senate to override a veto.

“No one would even think of questioning if I had the votes,” Sweeney said. “I don’t want to be confrontational. I just want to get these people taken care of.”

Sweeney: ‘Not looking to embarrass’ governor

While Sweeney and Murphy have been at odds over a number of issues, the Senate president said he decided not to pursue the override when Murphy’s office said the governor is willing to work toward a compromise. “I am not looking to embarrass him,” he said.

Murphy’s office did not return a request for comment.

Prospects for an override vote in the Assembly also appear good, as the lower house passed the measure last December by a 70-9 vote and only 54 votes are needed to override a bill there. While Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-Middlesex) has not spoken publicly about the measure, he and Sweeney are allied on many issues and Coughlin is also generally supportive of progressive positions.

The New Jersey Legislature has not overridden a gubernatorial veto in 22 years. The last override had the majority party overriding its own governor, then Republican Christie Whitman, in December 1997 when Whitman conditionally vetoed a “partial birth abortion” ban passed by the GOP-led Senate and Assembly. While lawmakers won that battle, Whitman could claim ultimate victory three years later when a federal appeals court panel struck down that law as unconstitutional.

New Jersey’s last Democratic governor, Jon Corzine, conditionally vetoed 22 bills, and absolute-vetoed only four in his four years in office, during which time his party also controlled both houses of the Legislature. Corzine issued all four of his absolute vetoes, and 13 of the conditional vetoes, during his first two years in office, indicating a better rapport with lawmakers later in his tenure.

Credit: NJTV News
Gov. Phil Murphy
Murphy has already surpassed Corzine in little more than a year in office, so far conditionally vetoing 40 measures and absolutely vetoing eight. Sweeney is a prime sponsor of the bills behind five of the eight absolute vetoes and 16 of the conditional ones. He and a majority of lawmakers have agreed with the conditions Murphy imposed on 12 of the conditional vetoes on bills Sweeney sponsored and they are now law.

Veto took Sweeney by surprise

The Senate president said Murphy’s veto of the emergency assistance bill was completely unexpected and he was only alerted that the veto was coming the night before Murphy issued it. Typically, a governor will reach out to a bill’s sponsor on problems with a measure and the two will try to work out a compromise, particularly when both are of the same party, Sweeney noted. That compromise is then embodied in a conditional veto, and as long as a majority of lawmakers go along with the governor’s conditions, the modified bill becomes law. Absolute vetoes are usually reserved for situations in which the governor and sponsor cannot agree on changes.

“If you don’t agree with something, tell the legislator early enough to work it out through a conditional veto,” Sweeney said. He noted that Murphy had previously conditionally vetoed another of his bills, to restore emergency housing aid for five years to a different group of individuals and that he and a majority of lawmakers agreed to Murphy’s conditions and that bill is now law. Sweeney was visibly angry the day of Murphy’s absolute veto of the housing measure. On Thursday, he was calmer when discussing a possible compromise with the governor.

Advocates, who were also upset with Murphy’s veto, are hoping that the governor can work out a compromise with Sweeney over the next several weeks and plan to begin lobbying Murphy to do so.

“We are hopeful that this compromise quickly results in helping people prevent homelessness, a goal we believe all parties share,” said Staci Berger, president and CEO of the Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey. “We look forward to helping find a solution so that NJ’s most vulnerable residents are safe.”

The bill would have covered people who get cash benefits under the programs that replaced what used to be known as welfare, and who are homeless or in danger of becoming homeless. Currently, a person or family can receive this assistance only once, for one 12-month period, with a potential extension of six months. The bill sought to let a person or family become eligible for the housing aid again after seven years have passed.

Budgetary concerns

The governor’s veto message mentioned budgetary concerns but did not cite any specific cost estimate for the bill. Anonymous administration sources reportedly said, though, it would cost $200 million to provide the emergency housing aid it authorized. Murphy also objected on the grounds it sought to spend money that had not been included in the budget, saying such expenditures should be handled as part of the annual appropriations process.

But Sweeney pointed out then, and again on Thursday, that Murphy asked for and recently signed a measure separate from the budget process to give a subsidy of $100 million over five years to the horseracing industry.

The nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services said it could not estimate the cost of the bill.

Sweeney said he thinks someone within his administration is giving Murphy “bad numbers.” His own office’s best estimate is that the bill would cost a maximum of $20 million a year, Sweeney said, but likely closer to $15 million. He said that while as many as 2,000 might be eligible for the housing assistance, it’s more likely that no more than 200 people would wind up getting it.

In total, the emergency assistance budget for the state this year is about $58 million, including federal funds, and about 3,600 New Jerseyans received the aid last October.

Monthly emergency assistance payments range from $600 to $1,000, according to the OLS estimate.

Sweeney said these are people truly in need and added that Republicans have consistently supported providing this assistance. In the last legislative term, the measure passed both houses with bipartisan support, only to be pocket-vetoed by former Gov. Chris Christie who declined to sign it at the end of his term.

“If you are going to be progressive, you have to support this. It’s very personal because we’re dealing with the most vulnerable people in this state. You are dealing with people with disabilities, dealing with mental-illness issues,” said Sweeney, who calls himself fiscally conservative and who has a daughter with Down syndrome. “These are the people government is supposed to be for.”