Dems insist legislative agenda will reflect party unity

Behind all the pomp and ceremony of the governor’s final State of the State address, and the swearing in of the 218th Legislature the wheels of the political machinery were turning with their inevitable certainty.

A new Assembly speaker will be a key to the smooth — or rough — sailing for whatever agenda Democrats, who now control both houses and the governorship, may want to put forward. To that extent, all eyes were on the Democratic response to Gov. Chris Christie’s address, which for the first time since 2015, included the leaders of both houses.

“I’m very excited to be working with Governor-elect Murphy and our new speaker Craig Coughlin,” said Senate President Steve Sweeney. “Maybe to your chagrin, we may not fight as much because we’re going to attempt like hell not to. But we are Democrats, just so you know.”

We’ll spare you the details of this sometimes rocky relationship and the shutdown it led to last summer. But all that’s behind them, say the Democrats, which means everyone is on the same page, right?

“We think we have the opportunity to do terrific things,” added Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin.

That’s what you expect to hear on day one. But the road ahead might not necessarily be as smooth as this group hug might suggest. For starters, there’s the relationship between Murphy and Sweeney, chilly for a couple of reasons, but thawing, says Sweeney.

“We’ve communicated. He texts, and I text back, so there’s communication,” said Sweeney. “Look, he’s busy setting up the cabinet and the government. I don’t expect that he’ll have a problem working with me.”

Murphy, too, says he’s confident that the Dems are in lockstep, but already on two of the governor-elect’s agenda items, legalizing marijuana and instituting a millionaire’s tax, there’s evidence to suggest that they’re not.

“It’s really early and I didn’t say I was against a millionaire’s tax,” suggested the Senate president. “I said what’s happened in Washington causes us to take a step back.”

Sweeney says he’s assembled an informal panel to study the issue — insisting it’s not a task force, where ideas go to die. As for the speaker’s take on legalized marijuana?

“I think much has been talked about. It’s more of what I didn’t say,” said Coughlin. “What I didn’t say was we’re going to pass a marijuana bill in the first 100 days. What I did say, which remains to be true and I think this will be a hallmark of the 218th Assembly, is that we go through a thorough and thoughtful process each and every time.”

And thoughtful deliberation is not a bad thing, per se, except if you’re a governor facing budget gaps while trying to push an expensive social agenda. In that case, expediency is preferred, but in Trenton, that’s never guaranteed.

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