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Stephen M. Sweeney. (Kevin Sanders for New Jersey Globe)

Sweeney expects a fight over proposed pension changes

Senate President as Republican support in possible battle with Murphy

By Nikita Biryukov, August 09 2018 5:53 pm

The recommendations of a fiscal panel seeking to blunt the costs of the state’s government and mention debts may well lead to the next big showdown between Trenton’s leaders.

“Listen, of course we’re going to have a fight. Any change that’s worth anything comes with a fight. The easy stuff is done. It’s gone,” Senate President Steve Sweeney said at a press conference announcing the panel’s recommendations on Thursday.

Many of the recommendations put forth by the panel deal with public-sector pensions and the state’s school districts, issues that fall firmly within the domain of the New Jersey Education Association, a frequent enemy of Sweeney’s.

“What was issued today was just a report. We look forward to working with Gov. Murphy to identify a real, sustainable path to a secure pension and affordable health benefits,” NJEA President Marie Blistan said in a joint statement with other member’s of the group’s leadership that took swings at Sweeney for the current state of New Jersey’s pension system.

While members of the legislature – Republicans and Democrats from both chambers – are ready to back many of the recommendations put forth by the panel, the governor’s office said that their role in the process has been largely limited to this point.

A source within the governor’s office said that they had received no invitation to join the panel, which was made up of Sweeney, Sens. Steve Oroho, Tony Bucco and Paul Sarlo as well as Assemblyman Lou Greenwald and Assemblywoman Eliana Pintor-Marin and subject-matter experts. The source also said they were first informed of the recommendations early Thursday afternoon.

Sweeney contested both those points, claiming that he had sent the governor a set of preliminary recommendations that included all those in the final draft and that he had offered the governor a spot on the panel in early May.

“Everything in that report he has had since June 30th,” Sweeney said.

Still, the governor offered a more conciliatory tone in a statement it released Thursday thanking Sweeney and saying he was willing to work with the legislature on at least some of the provisions.

“My Administration stands ready to listen to any and all ideas on how to build a stronger and fairer New Jersey without unfairly burdening the middle class,” Murphy said in the statement.

Murphy specifically cited shared services across municipalities and possible changes to the state’s tax incentives programs.

Should there be a fight over the recommendations, Murphy will be in a tough spot. While he’ll have the NJEA and other such groups at his back, it’s more than likely he’ll be facing veto-proof majorities in the legislature.

Sweeney wouldn’t rule out employing such measures, and he indicated that he’d likely have enough votes for an override or constitutional amendment for at least some of the issues raised by the panel’s report.

But, though Sweeney admitted that conflict would eventually come in the fight over the policies, he was reluctant to issue any challenges to Murphy. At this point, he’d still like to work together.

“I’m not looking to fight with him. I’m looking to work with him,” Sweeney said when asked if he expected a fight with the governor. “No, I don’t know what to expect. All I can tell you is when you talk about change, there’s always a fight that goes along with it because people like the status quo.”

Despite the building tension, Sweeney said this wasn’t a repeat of June’s budget fight, even as he brought up lines from that same fight, like a report on the state’s pension debt authored by Murphy in 2005 and the sales tax increase he sought during budget negotiations.

If it turns out to be a similar spat, Sweeney will once more have Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin at his back, but this time he’ll also have Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean. It’s not clear where Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick stands – he didn’t immediately return a call on the matter made at 5:16 p.m.

But, Sweeny isn’t biting at the bit for another fight.

“My biggest fear is that you guys try to make this ‘this is a Sweeney-Murphy thing,’” Sweeney said. “It’s not.”

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