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Senate President Steve Sweeney at a budget press conference on June 21.

Budget fight turns nasty

By Nikita Biryukov, June 21 2018 10:34 pm

Tempers in Trenton took a turn for the worse on Thursday after the legislature passed its version of the budget and another meeting between Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, Senate President Steve Sweeney and Gov. Phil Murphy passed without progress.

The latest bombs – and the participants have begun to throw bombs, largely discarding the veneer of civility that has mostly covered the intra-party budget feud thus far – thrown by legislative leaders at a joint press conference late in the day are claims that Murphy’s administration, and the governor himself, threatened members of Sweeney’s caucus.

“’We’ll remember, you’ll never get any legislation done, your appointments are dead.’ You know, that reminds me of someone else, and the guy likes to cite his name on a regular basis,” Sweeney said, referring to threats he said the governor made. “You can’t do those things. You can’t act like an outsider and be the ultimate insider, and that’s what he is.”

The State Senate narrowly passed the budget pushed by legislative leaders on Thursday. The 21-to-17 vote was only successful with help from two Republicans, Sens. Kristin Corrado and Christopher “Kip” Bateman. Six Democrats voted no or abstained.

The vote in the General Assembly was less close, breaking at 46 to 28.

Murphy has promised to veto that budget, and Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg said on Thursday that override talks have begun in the legislature.

But, it was expected that those talks would start eventually if lawmakers failed to reach a compromise. Perhaps the bigger problem for Murphy is that Coughlin seems to have lost patience for the governor as well.

“I understand that the governor has been quite ciritical of the senate president and me and the members of our caucuses, but the governor is in fact responsible in many ways for the breakdown,” Coughlin said. “He’s taken a very dogmatic approach resolving this. He’s been disagreeable instead of disagreeing, and I think we had the opportunity to make real progresses today, and we failed. We failed in part because of an unwillingness to recognize the legislature’s role in this process.”

Murphy didn’t come out of the day without his own jabs, but his largely lacked the barbs of those lobbed by Sweeney, and, to a lesser degree, Coughlin.

“I believe I’m fighting with Democrats,” Murphy said in response to a question about infighting, as though to imply they weren’t. “I think folks have to look at this and see, in many respects, the Christie legacy – the deal-making, the kicking the can down the road regardless of whether folks were democrats or republicans as he is – hasn’t been run out of the system.”

There are still nine days until the June 30 budget deadline, so there’s still time for Democrats to come to a compromise, but no solution is floating on the horizon, and the tone of the budget fight has only grown worse in recent days.

Sweeney and Coughlin met twice with Murphy on Thursday, once in the morning and once in the afternoon. The later meeting ended in a disagreement about how much money a supreme court decision reaffirming the ability of states to collect sales tax for online transactions could net the state and how much that money could affect the budget.

“No food throwing,” Murphy said of the latter meeting at a press conference in the late afternoon. “So, there’s a lot of hope. I said this already, that these are very straight-up meetings. there was a really disappointing rejection on their part of facts, which is the reason I said what I said about alt-facts, and that is discouraging.”

But, to the legislators, Murphy’s the one making up the numbers.

“This is my ninth budget,” Sweeney said. “I have never seen an administration with a lack of focus and a lack of honesty.”

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