Gov. Sweeney strikes again, with bold plan to cut spending | Moran

Gov. Sweeney strikes again, with bold plan to cut spending | Moran

By Tom Moran | Re-posted from
Columnist, The Star-Ledger

New Jersey faces two possible futures, and we have to choose one.

We can raise taxes every year to keep up with escalating costs, which is the path that Gov. Phil Murphy has chosen so far.

Or we can cut spending. And on Thursday, we heard a credible and gutsy plan to do that from Senate President Steve Sweeney, a conservative Democrat who is the rookie governor’s chief political rival.

“We’re going to have a fight,” Sweeney said. “Any change that’s worth anything comes with a fight. The easy stuff is done. It’s gone.”

Sweeney, D-Gloucester, has arranged the pieces on the chess board with care, and my guess is he’s going to get most of what he wants. In January, he recruited an impressive group of policy experts to hammer out this plan, working with a bipartisan group of leading legislators. This train is going to be tough for Murphy to stop.

The plan calls for phasing out the pension system, converting it a public sector version of 401k plans. It would put all public employees into health plans rated as “gold” value under Obamacare, down from platinum. It would phase out the scandalous practice of allowing retired public workers to cash out all their unused sick pay, which for some cops can exceed $500,000, courtesy of local property taxpayers. That list goes on.

On education, it calls for merging K-6 and K-8 districts into larger K-12 districts, cutting the number of districts roughly in half. And the state would absorb the full cost of special education, a huge hit to property tax payers under today’s system.

These ideas have been bouncing around Trenton for two decades, but they’ve been considered too hot to touch, since each is guaranteed to provoke ferocious opposition. Careers will probably end over this.

Sweeney doesn’t seem to care. He’s a happy warrior, he has firm support in his caucus, and he clearly relishes fighting with the governor. They can’t stand each other, and on Thursday they were arguing again over whether the sky is blue.

Sweeney says he offered the governor a seat on this commission; the governor’s office says that’s not true. Sweeney says he shared every detail of this plan with the governor in advance; the governor’s office said they’ve never seen it. I can’t even place odds on that stuff, but they both seem like overgrown boys at times.

Still, it’s a serious mistake to view this purely as a contest of egos. Both men are acting on longstanding conviction.

Sweeney has been pressing for big cuts in pensions and health care since 2005, and he wrote most of the 2011 reform that Gov. Chris Christie signed. He vows to block any further tax hikes while he runs the Senate, even if it forces deep cuts in programs like education and transit.

Murphy is a vintage liberal who treats the fiscal crisis like an unwanted visit from a reviled relative during a vacation. He ignored it in this budget, proposing a menu of new spending plans, from free community college to universal preschool. He won’t rule out another round of tax hikes next year, or the year after that.

So, Sweeney now says he’ll take this plan on the road for the next several months, with town hall meetings and press conferences, all with Republicans and Democrats presenting this plan as an alternative to endless tax hikes.

Who wins that debate? That’s easy. If the governor resists, he loses.

I called two of the most thoughtful progressives in the legislature, Sens. Joe Vitale, D-Middlesex, and Loretta Weinberg, D-Bergen, and they both sounded a lot like Sweeney when it comes to spending cuts. Both reserved judgement until seeing details but said it is indeed time to cut spending. And, of course, Republicans will jump aboard in a flash.

“I think Sweeney is showing a lot of common sense,” said Assemblyman Jon Bramnick, R-Union, the minority leader. “We will study the details, but he’s on the right track.”

Understand, this is all a bunch of ideas at this stage, agreed to only in principle. So, legislators have wiggle room to flake out once they see the actual legislation that comes from it. And notably, Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, D-Middlesex, was on vacation and issued only a tepid statement Thursday thanking the experts for their input.

The first salvos from opponents started even before Sweeney’s press conference ended, from the New Jersey Education Association. The other public worker unions will no doubt fight hard against this as well.

Like the governor, the unions see collective bargaining as sacred and insist that changes to their health care plans must be negotiated, not imposed by law, as happened in 2011. That’s probably Murphy’s best place to make a stand, since many Democrats agree on that point.

But pensions are the most pressing problem, and they are not subject to collective bargaining. So, that will get him only so far.

We can expect opponents to portray this as something like coal barons crushing the mine worker unions in Appalachia, which is a farcical. The NJEA statement accused Sweeney of “favoring millionaires over the middle-class” which takes a lot of nerve for a group that pays its senior people like corporate CEOs, with executive director Ed Richardson earning $1.2 million during the last year for which records are available. But there it is.

To me, progressives should be the first to get on board. If these cuts are enacted, public workers will still have better benefits than most taxpayers. And without these cuts, there is no way to adequately fund progressive causes, from college scholarships and universal preschool, to affordable housing and mass transit. The math is unforgiving.

Give Sweeney this much, at least: He is filling a vacuum left by the governor. If Murphy has a better plan to solve the fiscal crisis, it’s time for him to share it.

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