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Senate President Steve Sweeney at a June 27 press conference. (Photo by Nikita Biryukov)

Sweeney seeks reduction of gubernatorial power

Senate President wants constitutional amendment

By Nikita Biryukov, July 23 2018 8:28 pm

Senate President Steve Sweeney is taking steps to put a constitutional amendment stripping Gov. Phil Murphy and his successors of the power to unilaterally certify revenues for the state’s budget.

That power was close to the center of the impasse New Jersey’s Democratic leaders came to in last month’s budget negotiations, with Murphy, Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin at odds over how much money certain tax increases and other revenues would bring in.

The state constitution gives the governor alone the power to certify revenues, and both the Treasury and the Office of Legislative Services work separately to forecast revenue figures. The constitutional amendment would create a three-member panel made up of representatives from OLS and the treasury, along with a third party chosen by the other two.

“Allowing it to be in one person’s hands to make the numbers work however they choose to make them work doesn’t make any sense,” Sweeney said in a press scrum on Monday. “Remember, we were told we were $855 million off. Where did that go? Where did the numbers go? We didn’t raise taxes that way, you know that”

Previous versions of this measure have made it through the legislature in past years. In 2016, a bill with similar prescriptions to the constitutional amendment made it to former Gov. Chris Christie’s desk, where it was vetoed.

But, this time, thing’s are a little different.

For one, the 2016 bill did not stipulate joint revenue certification, mentioning only joint revenue forecasting. Because this year’s measure includes joint  certification, it would strip the governor of some of his unilateral power, making Murphy’s opposition unsurprising.

But, Murphy’s opposition will likely end up meaning little here. Because the measure is a constitutional amendment, he cannot veto it.

To get on the ballot, the constitutional amendment will need only a three-fifths majority votes in both chambers of the legislature, and given the Republican support for the measure, that’s not a hard bar to reach.

“It’s just good government,” said Sen. Sam Thompson (R-Old Bridge). “Every year, we have this problem that OLS and the Treasury come up with different numbers, so it makes sense to have the two of them and a third party to get together and see who has better numbers.”

Thompson said he suspected other members of his caucus would back the measure as well, and some already have.

Sen. Declan O’Scanlon spoke highly of the amendment several times during a public hearing on Monday, and Sen. Dawn Marie Addiego told the Globe Sen. Steve Oroho, a champion of budget issues among senate Republicans, wanted to sign onto the measure as a primary sponsor.

But, while it’s unlikely the measure will stall in the Senate, the Assembly is another matter.

The lower chamber has not scheduled any hearings or voting sessions ahead of the August deadline to get the constitutional amendment on November’s ballot, and Sweeney said that he had yet to discuss the matter with Coughlin.

To make matters worse, the governor’s office is sure to lobby against the measure in the Assembly, just as it has in the Senate.

“They’ve been calling my members against it, and that’s ok,” Sweeney said. “They’re against it. I’ve spoken to them. I said, “Look, it’s business, it’s not personal.”

Regardless of whether or not the amendment passes this year – Sweeney said it may have to wait until next year – it’ll need supporting legislation to fully function, and Murphy could issue vetoes on that front.

But for now, the matter is reminiscent of June’s budget fight. For one, there’s been a relative dearth of communication between Sweeney and Murphy on the matter.

Sweeney said he hadn’t brought the matter up to the front office, though he said he had discussed the issue with members of the administration. And the administration returned has so far returned that silence in-kind.

“It’d be nice if he talked to be about it,” Sweeney said when asked about comments from Murphy’s camp made to the press. “They haven’t spoken to me about what they’re going to do.”

At this point, one thing’s clear. The perception of another political brawl between New Jersey’s top Democrats won’t help legislators, and it won’t help Murphy, regardless of the merits of joint revenue forecasting.

But, to Sweeney, this isn’t a repeat of last month’s tussle.

“Who me,” Sweeney said when asked if he was renewing June’s conflicts with the constitutional amendment. “No, we’re not fighting.”

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