Amid the ongoing feud between New Jersey’s most powerful Democrats, Senate President Steve Sweeney has complained that Gov. Phil Murphy has vetoed his and other Democrats’ bills more often than past leaders.
The data shows that Sweeney is right.
An NJ Spotlight analysis of gubernatorial bill-signing and vetoes for the last five administrations found that Murphy has vetoed a greater percentage of the bills on which he has acted than any other governor whose party controlled at least one house of the Legislature since 1996. Over the last 23 years, only former Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican who faced Democratic majorities in both the Senate and Assembly during his eight years in office, had a higher veto percentage than Murphy.
While it is a governor’s right — and is a hallmark of the American system of checks and balances — to outright reject or seek changes in legislation, the way Murphy has wielded his veto pen has only served to aggravate the tenuous relationship between the governor and legislative leaders, Sweeney (D-Gloucester) in particular.
“Notwithstanding the big issues where they’ve managed to find common ground, we can’t pretend there’s no bad blood between the Governor and the Legislature,” said Micah Rasmussen, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University. “It’s not clear to me that a more spirited check-and-balance between the branches is necessarily always bad. But if you’re trying to get an ambitious, progressive agenda passed, then it helps to have friends in the Legislature.”
But not all of the onus should be on Murphy, Rasmussen continued: “It’s clearly a two-way street — they’ll send him bills they know he won’t sign, and don’t try to account for his concerns, and he certainly has done the same with his vetoes.”
Focusing on joint achievements
Rather than addressing vetoes, Murphy spokeswoman Alyana Alfaro touted the legislation the governor has signed and stressed that he and lawmakers have achieved many progressive reforms together.
“Under Governor Murphy, New Jersey has expanded paid family leave, put the state on the path to a $15 minimum wage, ensured equal pay for equal work, and provided all workers with earned paid sick leave,” Alfaro said. “Those accomplishments have made New Jersey a better place to live and work, and they were all enacted in partnership with the Legislature.”
Still, legislative staff, and Sweeney, did blame Murphy. They say the governor, who came from Wall Street and not State Street or any other elected office, has been less apt than past administrations to consult with legislators or staff to try to work out disagreements before issuing vetoes.
Sweeney was particularly irate earlier this year when Murphy issued an absolute veto of the Senate president’s bill to provide additional emergency aid for some public-assistance recipients in danger of becoming homeless. In his veto message, Murphy wrote that the state might not be able to afford the bill. Around the same time, Sweeney had been saying the state was in the midst of a “fiscal crisis.”
Three months later, after Sweeney had threatened to override the governor’s veto, Murphy signed a similar bill that capped the total cost of the extra aid and program expenses at $25 million. At the time, Sweeney said all the drama could have been avoided had Murphy’s office called to discuss the bill before vetoing it.
Sweeney: You should never forget me’
“You should never forget me as a Senate president,” he said. “You should never absolutely veto a member’s bill without at least talking to them first.”
The rocky relationship between the two Democrats dates to the 2017 gubernatorial election. Some say its roots lie in Murphy’s deep pockets and swift consolidation of support among county party leaders across the state for a position that Sweeney had planned to seek. Others peg it to Murphy’s unwavering support for the New Jersey Education Association, the union which waged an unsuccessful multimillion-dollar campaign to try to unseat Sweeney from the Senate after he decided against a gubernatorial run.
While Murphy and lawmakers have accomplished much in the governor’s first 22 months in office, the two most powerful men in Trenton disagree on a number of key issues. Sweeney opposes a millionaires tax, which was one of Murphy’s signature campaign issues. And the governor does not support Sweeney’s proposal to make significant changes to public-worker pensions and benefits.
Given the men lead different branches of government, each has some power over the other’s agenda. As president of the Senate, Sweeney can push through — or refuse to post for hearings or votes — Murphy’s priorities. And the governor has the power of the veto over legislation sent to his desk.
“You can avoid vetoes by having real and constant communication throughout the process,” said Ben Dworkin, director of the Rowan Institute for Public Policy and Citizenship at Rowan University. “In some cases they do communicate, but in other cases they don’t communicate as well … The system is built for tension. This is not a parliamentary democracy. The executive is a separate branch of government.”
Not shy of using veto
Murphy has not been afraid to use the veto. Since taking office in January 2018, the governor has rejected outright a dozen measures sent to him by lawmakers; all had a Democrat as at least the first prime sponsor. He has also conditionally vetoed 66 measures. The Legislature agreed with the changes he proposed for 38 of those bills, leaving 28 effectively vetoed as of last Monday. Murphy has signed into law 472 measures — 430 outright, 38 following conditional vetoes and four while using his line-item veto to omit some spending. Of all the bills on which he has acted, Murphy has effectively vetoed 7.8%.
Alfaro focused on bills signed, rather than vetoes, saying, “Governor Murphy has worked closely with legislators to sign almost 200 more bills into law than Governor Christie over the same time period and has signed significantly more bills into law at this point in his term than any governor since Governor Whitman.”
While Murphy’s veto rate may seem small, it is more than double the second-highest veto rate for a governor whose party controlled at least one house of the Legislature since 1996. That was in the 2000-2001 session, when two Republicans — Christie Whitman and then Donald DiFrancesco, who became acting governor when Whitman left mid-term to join the Bush administration — effectively vetoed 3.4% of bills on which they took action through November 25, 2001. During that time, Republicans controlled both houses of the Legislature and from February 1, 2001 to January 8, 2002, DiFrancesco served as both governor and Senate president.
Whitman, the state’s first and so far only female governor, had some prominent disagreements with her GOP legislative majorities. She is famously the last governor to have had a veto overridden, when in December 1997 some Democrats joined with Republicans to override her conditional veto of a “partial birth abortion” ban passed by the GOP-led Senate and Assembly. Although lawmakers won that battle, Whitman could claim ultimate victory three years later when a federal appeals court struck down that law as unconstitutional.
Sweeney has twice threatened to override Murphy vetoes. Both times, the governor has avoided that potentially embarrassing eventuality by signing a nearly identical bill to the ones he had vetoed. In one instance, which involved a measure requiring some transparency of so-called dark money organizations, Murphy got the last word — a federal judge blocked the law from taking effect, saying the law is likely unconstitutional, as Murphy had predicted when he conditionally vetoed the original version of the bill.
In three of the last dozen legislative sessions, other Democratic governors vetoed either no bills or fewer than 1% of the bills they acted on, the data shows.
Some say that might not be the best way to govern.
The Christie record
“The legislative process is very public: There are committee hearings, debates, full votes,” Dworkin said. “We don’t know the internal decision making process of the governor unless he is out making statements.”
Only Murphy’s predecessor, Republican Chris Christie, had a higher effective veto rate than Murphy at the same time in his two terms. In the 2014-2015 legislative term, when he was preparing to run for president and then an announced candidate, almost a quarter of Christie’ bill actions were vetoes. In the next legislative session, most of which occurred after Christie dropped out of the presidential race, his veto rate was at its lowest during his tenure — 12.1%.
Of course, the Democratic majorities had sent Christie many bills seeking to enact progressive reforms that they knew he would never sign. Among these were increased “welfare” benefits, a higher minimum wage and a requirement that candidates for president disclose their income tax returns to appear on the ballot in New Jersey.
Still, Christie had a relatively good relationship with some Democratic leaders, and Sweeney in particular. In his last two years in office, Christie vetoed one Sweeney bill and conditionally vetoed five others with which lawmakers failed to concur.
So far, Murphy has absolutely vetoed five Sweeney bills and conditionally vetoed another 10, with lawmakers agreeing to the governor’s conditions on seven of those. With eight of his measures effectively vetoed to date, Sweeney is the legislator most often vetoed by Murphy so far this term.
When a New Jersey governor receives a bill, he has several choices. Most commonly, he will either sign the bill into law, veto it so that it does not become law — unless two-thirds of legislators in both houses agree to override the veto — or conditionally veto the bill. In a CV, the governor suggests changes to the bill. If legislators agree with the changes and the governor then signs the bill, it becomes law. CVs with which lawmakers do not concur do not become law.
Last Jan. 31, when Murphy vetoed Sweeney’s emergency aid bill, the Senate president noted that at that point Murphy had issued absolute vetoes of eight bills, five of which were Sweeney’s. “What do you think is going on?” he asked.
Earlier this month at the New Jersey State League of Municipalities annual conference, Sweeney said it is “frustrating” to work with Murphy’s staff.
“It’s an administration that doesn’t work well with us,” he said. “You’ve seen conditional vetoes left and right because they don’t get in front of issues after we asked them to get in front of issues. I told them if you have concerns about bills, flag them and we’ll talk about it, not after they are moving through committees.”
But officials in the governor’s office said they have never been given advance notice of committee agendas and so cannot give input prior to bills being heard. They also said they have been told several times in the past that the Legislature would not consider amendments even if the governor flags them.
With six weeks left before the end of the current legislative session, some of the 28 bills which the governor has conditionally vetoed could still become law. Last Monday, the Assembly voted to concur with the governor’s CVs of five bills, one of which already also has the Senate’s OK, virtually guaranteeing its enactment — even after both houses concur with a conditional veto, the governor must still sign off on the final bill.
Dworkin said that in an ideal world, party loyalty should not enter into veto decisions; they should be made based on the merits of legislation and the governor’s priorities.
“The governor and his staff do not make these decisions lightly, regardless of which governor it is,” he said. “The process is not supposed to be completely different when the state is governed by one party.”