Sweeney pushing to reopen more of economy — and for more transparency from Murphy

Michael Ein Senate President Steve Sweeney, right, disagrees with Gov. Phil Murphy, left, on taxes in the state budget.

State Senate President Steve Sweeney wants to reopen car dealerships, surgery centers and a host of other businesses. He wants to do it slowly and scientifically, making sure businesses are following the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines. And he wants to do it, he said, unless he hears a good reason not to.

Sweeney (D-West Deptford), in a 30-minute conversation with ROI-NJ, said his biggest fear is that the state reopens the economy too slowly. And his biggest frustration is that he — and other key legislative leaders, he said — are not getting enough information from Gov. Phil Murphy and his administration.

The weekly calls are nice, he said, but they are not filled with the answers to their specific questions.

“We’ve asked them to show us the health models they always talk about,” he said. “Maybe I’m wrong to ask to open up? Show me the model. Show me why, where, how.

“For a month, I’ve asked for a meeting with myself, the Assembly Speaker (Craig Coughlin, D-Woodbridge) and the two minority leaders (Sen. Tom Kean, R-Westfield, and Asm. Jon Bramnick, R-Westfield). Take us in, show us what you’re looking at. Maybe I’ll understand you better if you show us the information you’re looking at.”

Sweeney said he has the same frustration with the governor’s desire to borrow $5 billion in federal bonds. Or, rather, he said, the administration’s inability to explain what it will be used for in anything but the broadest of terms.

“We’ve met with the governor a few times over borrowing, but it’s still not clear,” he said. “If we’re going to borrow this kind of money, we need to have the discussion of how much, why, where, what it’s going to and how are we paying it back. And we still haven’t gotten that meeting yet.”

He goes on.

“What tax am I raising to go along with the borrowing?” he said. “And what spending are we cutting? It’s easy to go along with something if you know what you’re going along with. And, normally, when someone doesn’t want to get into a room with you, there’s a reason they don’t want to get into a room.”

That’s a good line. The type one would have expected months ago — before the pandemic. Sweeney and Murphy don’t often see eye-to-eye.

But, in this conversation, it was a rare one. Sweeney was largely very complimentary of the governor.

“I really think the governor has done a great job during this crisis,” he said. “He’s done a really good job of making people realizing the importance of social distancing. I think he’s driven that part home well.

“And, when the governor says, ‘I’ll shut you down as soon as I open you up,’ nobody thinks he’s bluffing.”

Therein lies Sweeney’s biggest point.

Business owners — and citizens — understand the need for social distancing. And they passed the first test, when the governor opened parks and golf courses without issue. Now, it’s time for more, Sweeney said. There are places the state can open geographically — and sectors that can be tried, too.

He points to reopening plans from county governments in Cape May and Atlantic.

“Let’s review these plans, make sure they adhere to CDC guidelines and let them open,” he said.

The same goes for car dealerships and surgery centers. Sweeney said he’s confused on the hesitation on both.

“The lack of cars sales is a great frustration,” he said. “You can go to the dealer and get your car fixed — and there are cars on the lot when you get there — but you can’t buy them.

“We’re saying, let them open by appointment. Make sure they do the sanitizing. But it’s not hard to control social distancing on a car lot. Compare it to a grocery story or a Walmart or Target, it doesn’t make sense.”

Then there’s this: Car sales represent nearly a third of all sales tax — a much-needed revenue boost when you consider how much tax is being lost that comes from entertainment.

Waiting to open surgery centers — or allowing hospitals to do more elective procedures — may hurt economically in a different way. Especially in South Jersey, where Sweeney is from. Philadelphia is open for this type of business.

“We always say our health care is as good as Philadelphia — and encourage people to stay here,” he said. “For them to be opened and us to be closed puts us in a huge disadvantage long-term. People have cars. They can drive. And they’re going to go where they need to go to get the services.”

Sweeney said it’s time to start focusing on individual businesses that can be opened — and can follow CDC guidelines.

“We don’t need to open everything overnight,” he said. “This is not about flipping a switch. Let’s do it slowly and then test and measure.”

Businesses need it. And they are getting tired of waiting, Sweeney said.

“My No. 1 concern is saving as many businesses as we can,” he said. “We’re going to lose a lot of businesses out of this. And, let’s be clear, I’m not blaming the governor for that.

“But, we have to start responsibly bringing our businesses back. There are CDC guidelines on how to do this. Let’s give them a chance to follow them.”

Sweeney said he can see things starting to change.

“You wouldn’t believe the calls I get to my office,” he said. “I get business owners begging me to let them open up their businesses. People are telling me, ‘I can’t believe my government is putting me out of business.’

“People were very patient, very understanding — now, they’re getting hostile. These are people who were working a few months ago. Now they are out of money. The want to work.”

Read more from ROI-NJ on coronavirus: