Minimum wage bill speaks to Coughlin’s rising influence

Assembly speaker getting credit for shepherding $15/hr. measure

By Anjalee Khemlani
Trenton | Feb 4, 2019 at 6:45 am
From our print edition

Gov. Phil Murphy has announced he will sign the $15 minimum wage bill Monday, fulfilling a campaign promise and touting the win in coordination with the state’s legislative leaders.

Someone else may deserve the real kudos for getting the deal done.

Behind the scenes — and publicly by Senate President Stephen Sweeney — Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin is the one receiving the credit for getting the bill to the finish line, numerous sources told ROI-NJ.

It may be a sign of how things get done in Trenton moving forward.

With Murphy and Sweeney (D-West Deptford) often clashing with each other, Coughlin (D-Woodbridge) could be the mediator on key legislation.

“This could be a harbinger of things to come, because you have the governor constantly at odds with the Senate president and vice versa,” an insider said.

The person, who is familiar with the inner workings of state government, requested anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the issue.

“The political significance of this is the speaker came in and mediated a really important deal, and I think this could be a precedent for the budget, for marijuana, for EDA tax credits,” the person said. “The real significance here is the speaker didn’t pick sides. It’s almost like a swing vote on the Supreme Court.”

“This was his moment to show the kind of seismic impact he can have.”

Consider how the minimum wage bill got to the finish line.

Last year, Murphy repeatedly called on the Legislature to pass a bill that he could sign, especially before the last vote of the year on Dec. 17.

The minimum wage discussion had taken a back seat during the budget battle. And, when it resurfaced, it did so with little tangible movement. It could have suffered a similar fate this year if not for the urgency Coughlin felt in light of the Assembly elections this year, according to one insider.

“He was really joined at the hip with the Senate on many issues in the last calendar year,” the insider said. “(This) was a signal that (because) the Assembly is on the ballot next year, the Senate is not and the governor is not, the speaker (is willing) to carve out a voice here for the Assembly on an important issue.”

And it could just be the start of a more independently-minded Assembly.

Coughlin said so himself at his swearing-in, back in January 2018.

“I will always look for collaboration with the Senate and with our governor, but, inevitably, there will be times when the Assembly must set its own course and act as an independent and equal branch of government,” he said at the time. “I will not be afraid to chart that path when it is necessary.”

Other insiders said a key factor might be the dynamic between Sweeney and Coughlin — ideologically, they are on the same page. Their differences lie in one being a skilled negotiator and the other an unassuming leader.

“The Senate president holds the line on what (the Legislature) wants,” one of the insiders said. “It was the speaker who presented the compromise we agreed on.”

And, despite the tension between Sweeney and Murphy, the Legislature backed down from excluding teenagers as part of the minimum wage increases after Murphy publicly pushed for it in December.

“Even though we believed in it, we were not trying to embarrass the governor,” the insider said.

The catalyst that restarted serious conversations about the $15 minimum wage, according to three sources with knowledge of the deal, was an op-ed that Coughlin wrote at the end of November.

After that, the meetings began, and escalated at the start of the year.

“Starting around Christmastime, the three leaders really started to work out a framework of a deal and finished it at the start of the new year,” one source said.

Many aspects of the final bill were ironed out by early January, and the final sticking point was farm workers.

Sweeney was dug in on farmers. The governor was dug in on other issues, especially the timeline of the phase-in.

Behind the scenes, Coughlin worked hard to enable both Murphy and Sweeney to “walk away with their win,” an insider said.

“The Senate moved off of a proposal that they put in in December, and that was what we ultimately agreed on,” the person said. “That took a few days, but that was really a final piece. I think the speaker was influential in getting the Senate president to agree.”

Key issues Coughlin weighed in on were lowering the timespan to reach $15 and the carveouts for the small business and seasonal workers.

“A lot of ideas were floated that never made it into the bill, but here was a genuine attempt to think creatively to get around the box that these people put themselves in,” one insider said.

One key point they all agreed on was that it had to get done at the start of 2019.

“Everyone wanted to get it done this month,” the insider said. “The concern was, if it didn’t, even though there are other voting sessions, then there might be a perception that it was never going to happen. There was a fair amount of urgency … to try to reach a deal. I give the speaker a lot of credit for getting the Legislature to a place where the governor could work with (them). I think without him it probably doesn’t happen.”

The two weeks before the agreement was announced were the most critical, with regular meetings and the sense of urgency to get it done.

“This was a complete logjam between Murphy and Sweeney and their staffs before Craig intervened,” one insider said.

Another added, “Hopefully, we can do the same on marijuana now.”

Anjalee Khemlani | akhemlani@roi-nj.com | AnjKhem