The question was a good one. And it spoke to the type of negotiations that take place this time of year — or, rather, in the final days of June.
Are you looking to trade an agreement for provisions in your Path to Progress proposal in exchange for support of the governor’s new tax incentive programs?
State Senate President Steve Sweeney didn’t hesitate with his answer.
And, he said, he couldn’t even answer, “Yes” or “No.”
The reason: Sweeney said there are no negotiations between the Legislature and the Executive Branch. And there haven’t really been since Gov. Phil Murphy took office.
“Here’s the problem,” Sweeney (D-West Deptford) said. “Phil Murphy worked at Goldman Sachs and I think he still thinks he’s there.
“The Legislature is an equal partner. I can’t get anything done without them. And he can’t get anything done without me or (Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin). So, rather than go about this the way he’s going about it — (running commercials) instead of negotiating — we’re going to go to war.
“I’m not changing. I’m really not.”
Sweeney, in an hourlong meeting with the ROI-NJ Editorial Board on Wednesday, touched on a variety of subjects. But much of the time was spent not on his Path to Progress — his plan to help reform the state’s financial issues — but on the stalemate the state has come.
One that not only is threatening to create a state shutdown (no real surprise there), but also create an adversarial relationship between the state’s leaders.
It’s getting personal.
“He hasn’t learned to respect the Legislature yet,” Sweeney said.
Worse, he said, he’s encouraging the unions to take the same approach.
“I’m trying to get them to negotiate, and they’re not going to, because the governor’s basically taken a position of, ‘You don’t have to,’ which is really reckless,” he said.
“(For the) leader of our state to just say, ‘Don’t worry, regardless of how many reports that come back from Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s that say we’re the second-worst in the country, “We have a pension problem and what are you doing about it?” just ignore it. Don’t worry about it.’
“It’s just not the way to do things.
“I’m telling you, I’m open to negotiating the solution, but it can’t be ‘Give me everything and you get nothing in return.’ That’s not how it works.”
Sweeney said that, in some cases, the unions are leading the governor, pointing to his relationship with the New Jersey Education Association — the teachers union that tried to oust Sweeney from his Senate seat in the last election.
“I think it’s a problem when you’re totally, wholeheartedly owned by the largest union in the state, and that every decision is made for them before it’s made and looked at for the taxpayers,” he said. “Yeah, I think that’s the problem.”
Much of the discussion was on the inability to get state union workers to reduce their health care coverage one notch to a “gold”-level plan — an agreement Sweeney said not only will save money for the state, but ultimately will benefit the union workers.
In fact, the level is better than most people in the state have.
The unions obviously disagree.
Sweeney said he’s eager to discuss the issue, but gets blocked at every turn — the latest being an event at Rutgers University where he was shouted down and no discussion took place.
“The sad thing was, we wanted to have conversations with people,” he said. “They were doing that to scare people away from coming. We were there to have conversations. We really worked to try to have conversations and listen.
“A gold plan is not substandard, high-deductible, cheap health care,” he said. “But there was no one talking honestly to their members.
“It’s really a lack of leadership on their side.”
“If you’re going to take a leadership role, take a leadership role. To do the yelling and screaming, that was done years ago with labor, and you know why labor got away from it? It doesn’t work. You get with people; you talk to people.”
Sweeney said calls to have a debate with Hetty Rosenstein, the powerful head of the Communications Workers of America union, were turned down by her side.
“I’ll debate her anywhere, anytime,” he said.
Sweeney, as everyone knows, is a proud union member. He’s stunned by what he hears.
“They’re calling me anti-labor,” he said.
“I did the minimum wage every time I did. I did (paid) family leave both times.
“How can I be anti-labor?”
He said he’s a labor realist. In fact, he talked about voting to cut his own ironworkers pension.
“You think I wanted to do that?” he asked. “I didn’t want to do it, but I really didn’t have a choice.”
What he really wants, however, is more discussion with the governor.
Especially when it comes to the incentive packages the state needs to compete.
“We’re working on incentives as we talk,” he said. “The speaker and I had been talking incentives for a while. We need to get on the same page before we go see the administration.
“I don’t think there’s a sticking point. I think it’s just us getting our heads together to go to the governor and say, ‘Here’s what we think — what do you think?’ And, until we have a document to give them, we really don’t want to go to them, not being on the same page. And we’ll have to negotiate at that point.
“But, again, this isn’t Goldman Sachs. We’re not going to be dictated to.”