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Senate President Steve Sweeney. (Photo: Kevin Sanders for New Jersey Globe)

Sweeney: ‘Everything is negotiable until it’s not’

Senate president declines to commit to $4.9 billion pension payment, warns Murphy about negotiating through the press

By Nikita Biryukov, August 27 2020 5:06 pm

Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-West Deptford) says Gov. Phil Murphy’s proposed $4.9 billion pension payment is up for negotiation.

“Listen, everything is negotiable until it’s not negotiable,” he said during a press gaggle Thursday.

On Wednesday, Murphy said his stance on the pension payment was firm.

“If the pension payment in the budget is $4.9 billion, then the minimum amount that I’m prepared to make in the final deal is $4.9 billion, period,” Murphy said during Wednesday’s COVID-19 briefing. “There’s no negotiating room.”

The call has drawn some criticism from Republicans who claim the governor’s proposal to continue increasing the size of the state’s pension contribution while borrowing money to make up for COVID-19 fueled revenue shortfalls would send the state further into debt.

Murphy and Treasury staff disagree, saying the $4 billion in planned borrowing would carry a smaller interest rate than the state’s pension obligations.

There’s been little indication that Democrats in the legislature want to fight over the budget payment — budget committee chairs from both chambers didn’t rule out tweaking the size of the pension payment Thursday — but Sweeney wants Murphy to keep budget negotiations a little closer to his chest.

“Since we haven’t started a negotiation with him, I would prefer the governor doesn’t negotiate in the press because it forces us to negotiate in the press, and we’re trying not to do that right now,” he said.

The state’s decision to extend the 2020 fiscal year with a three-month supplemental budget has sharply reduced the amount of time for standard budget negotiations, and while the prospect of a government shutdown during a global health crisis will likely tamp down on some of the Democratic infighting that has come to define budget season under Murphy’s tenure, but there’s no guarantee.

Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin have signaled a greater willingness to work with the governor on this year’s budget — neither outright said they would oppose his proposal for a millionaires tax, as he they did in previous years — but that’s no guarantee that knives will stay sheathed.

But how’s it going so far?

“Peachy,” Sweeney said.

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