The Bold & Courageous: Christie/Sweeney budget kneecaps NJ Unions, line item veto takes care of the rest

NJ Governor Chris Christie & NJ Senate President Stephen Sweeney (credit: Tony Kurdzuk/The Star-Ledger)
NJ Governor Chris Christie & NJ Senate President Stephen Sweeney (credit: Tony Kurdzuk/The Star-Ledger)

NJ Governor Chris Christie & NJ Senate President Stephen Sweeney (credit: Tony Kurdzuk/The Star-Ledger)

In June 2011, NJ Senate President Stephen Sweeney crafted a budget that blew up collective bargaining for NJ’s public unions and required the Dems to be responsible for millions in state spending cuts.

The Democrats would also rely on up to $300 million in budget cuts that have not yet been determined, sources said. A millionaire’s tax has been discussed despite Christie’s objection to it.

The sources said Democrats are divided on whether to pursue the strategy in part because it would require them to sponsor the budget and make it difficult for them to criticize the governor for his handling of the state’s finances.

Not only did Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-Essex County) whip support for this budget, so did unelected Democratic power brokers like George Norcross III (CEO and owner of Conner Strong insurance company, past Camden County Democratic Party Chair) . It wasn’t too hard to find where Norcross stood to benefit from this collective bargaining busting budget:

For example, one provision in the agreement would bar state workers from using their health benefits at out-of-state hospitals. That may benefit New Jersey, as Norcross points out, but he must admit that it also benefits Cooper Health System in Camden, where he’s board chairman.

Remember, New Jersey borders Philadelphia and New York. Some of the best hospitals and specialists in the nation let alone the world are in these cities. Such an insurance plan would prevent NJ public employees from utilizing these services. Basically it’s the “don’t get sick unless you are in NJ measure”.

Newark Mayor Corey Booker and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie (credit: Aristide Economopoulos/The Star-Ledger)

Newark Mayor Corey Booker and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie (credit: Aristide Economopoulos/The Star-Ledger)

On June 15th, Democratic legislative leaders tried to convince heads of the NJ CWA and other unions of the same thing. The union leaders were not pleased. On the same day, Newark Mayor Corey Booker defended Gov Christie and Norcross against charges from the NJEA that Christie was trying to destroy the public spending and union collective bargaining to benefit the affluent.

Newark Mayor Cory Booker, who also has found common ground with Christie on school reform issues, also showed up last night to defend Norcross and attack the NJEA.

In fact Gov Christie utilized many Democratic conspirators that helped deliver him votes for the Christie/Sweeney Budget

Watson-Coleman, Cryan and other Democrats have questioned whether the Democratic legislative leadership was sacrificing its heart and soul in aligning itself with Christie on pension and health benefit legislation of critical interest to the Democrats’ traditional labor allies.

But the real question is whether Christie’s evidently close ties with Norcross, DiVincenzo and other Democratic power brokers such as Hudson County’s Brian Stack will continue to give Christie the Democratic legislative votes he needs when he needs them, including the final votes he will need to pass his budget by June 30.

Sweeney succeeded in getting the budget passed.

Relying on the Republican minority instead of his own caucus, Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) secured passage of the controversial bill, which would double what most teachers, firefighters and police officers must pay toward their health benefits — and, in many cases, triples those costs.

It would also shift the retirement age from 60 to 65 for people entering the workforce. It would eliminate cost-of-living increases that help workers offset inflation and property tax hikes.

And it would break off insurance plans into two options: one for treatment primarily from in-state hospitals, and one that would allow workers to get out-of-state care — presumably at a higher cost, though Sweeney could not say whether one plan would be cheaper than the other.

Sweeney. and State Senator Donald Norcross, (Brother of George Norcross IIIcurrent Camden County Democratic co-chair, 2010 to 2012 President Southern New Jersey AFL-CIO Central Labor Council), was were two of the 9 Democratic state senators who joined with the unified Republican caucus to pass the bill

The legislation (S2937) passed 24-15 with support from a handful of Democrats: Teresa Ruiz, Jeff Van Drew, Fred Madden, Jim Whelan, James Beach, Brian Stack and Donald Norcross.

Not only is Donald Norcross’s vote notable because he is George’s brother, it’s also interesting because in the 2009 election cycle, over 46% of his money raised was from organized labor. Sweeney dissed union leaders who opposed the Christie/Sweeney Budget as he stood with Christie at the bill signing on June 28th. (video below)

On the Wednesday after the budget was signed into law, Sweeney and Christie were supposed to talk to negotiate final details (additional legislation to clean up budget issues and line item vetoes Christie would use to tailor the budget). Christie never called.

“After all the heavy lifting that’s been done – the property tax cap, the interest arbitration reform, the pension and health care reform – and the guy wouldn’t even talk to me?” Sweeney asks.

The details are even uglier. The governor, Sweeney said, personally told him they would talk. His staff called Sweeney and asked him to remain close all day Wednesday. At one point, the staff told him the governor planned to call in five minutes.

No call.

No negotiations.

“I sat in my office all day like a nitwit, figuring we were going to talk,” Sweeney says.

On the Thursday after this press conference announcing the bill signing, Christie held another press conference with his now infamous defiant tone. He revealed he had used his line item veto to gut the Democratic budget of $900 million in spending and the millionaire’s tax hike. In addition, he accused the Democrats who helped him pass the budget of demagoguery, attempting to “deceive” NJ Voters and engaging in wild “fantasy”. (video here)

All of this was of course news to the spurned Sweeney who has to know he is screwed. He made enemies of the NJEA (which enjoys a 76% approval rating) and hitched himself to an increasingly unpopular Gov. Christie. Democratic voters (especially public employee union members) don’t have any use for his naive and inept leadership.

“Last night I couldn’t calm down,” Sweeney said. “To prove a point to me – a guy who has stood side by side with him, and made tough decisions – for him to punish people to prove his political point? He’s just a rotten bastard to do what he did.”


“He’s mean-spirited,” Sweeney said in the Friday interview. “He’s angry. If you don’t do what he says, I liken it to being spoiled, I’m going to get my way, or else.”
And: “He’s a rotten prick.”

What difference a legislative week makes. Christie used the magic wand known as the line item veto to turn a Christie/Sweeney Budget deal into the Christie Budget brought to you by Sweeney and Sweeney from Senate President to the Stooge of the Week. Among the line item veto cuts:

The governor cut the Senate and Assembly budgets, but not his own, a move that is unprecedented. He cut money from the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services, the outfit that sided with Democrats on this year’s revenue estimates.

He cut a fellowship program run by Alan Rosenthal, the Rutgers University professor who served as referee in this year’s legislative redistricting fight, and sided with Democrats.

When Democrats tried to restore money to a few favorite programs — including college scholarships for poor students, and legal aid for the needy — the governor not only rejected the additions, he added new cuts on top of that.

He mowed down a series of Democratic add-ons, including $45 million in tax credits for the working poor, $9 million in health care for the working poor, $8 million for women’s health care, another $8 million in AIDS funding and $9 million in mental-health services.

But the governor added $150 million in school aid for the suburbs, including the wealthiest towns in the state. That is enough to restore all the cuts just listed

Christie promised to slash spending, make unions contribute more money for benefits and not raise taxes. Nothing he did violates these political promises. Sweeney, amazingly, didn’t see it coming and along with Oliver, the Norcross’, Booker and a few other well connected Democrats helped Christie more than he could have ever expected. Either Sweeney is pretending he doesn’t agree with Christie or he was played for the fool that he may very well be. In both cases, his tenure has proven to be a detriment to Democratic voters and the state of New Jersey.

Note: The Newark Star-Ledger Statehouse bureau staff has done some fantastic work covering New Jersey State Politics.