The two Democratic leaders who control each chamber of the Legislature say their top priorities before the end of the year are to find long-term financial solutions to those two bedeviling issues. Smaller issues, such as Port Authority reform and health care costs, also must be addressed, lawmakers said.
But to get anything done, Trenton politicians must be able to overcome persistent barriers of the past: a Democratic Legislature at odds with Christie and Republicans, and limited financial resources to spread around for high-priced needs.
Add to the mix an Assembly election in November, which will narrow the chamber’s scope and schedule until after all the ballots are counted. Speaker Vincent Prieto said the Assembly’s absence from Trenton until November doesn’t mean it isn’t working, but the minority leader, Jon Bramnick, expressed frustration over the light schedule and a lack of cooperation by the majority.
“My expectation is I don’t expect to be called back to Trenton, but I’m ready, willing and able to do so,” said Bramnick, of Union County. “Let’s get to work.”
The state’s Transportation Trust Fund is expected to run out of money at the end of the fiscal year in June. Democrats have long said an increase in the state’s gasoline tax must be considered as a way to prop up the fund, which needs roughly $1.6 billion each year. But Christie has rejected every tax increase proposed by Democrats and recently signed a “no-tax pledge” as a presidential candidate. His office did not respond for comment.
“This is priority No. 1, because one, next year we have no money, and two, the roads are in deplorable condition,” said Prieto, of Secaucus. He added that legislative leaders and Christie left a “skeleton” of a solution on the table over the summer, and that “a gas tax is something we need to talk about.”
Like Christie, Bramnick is also against a tax, saying it has been a reflexive solution to most problems for Democrats.
He has called for restructuring the state’s school aid formula as a way to reduce spending rather than raising taxes, but that has been derided by Democrats as short-changing education.
“That is a way to say, ‘I didn’t raise your taxes, the schools did,’” said Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-Gloucester. “We were led to believe that it would be a bipartisan issue. They keep talking about a bipartisan process. The speaker and the leadership in the Assembly, the leadership in the Senate are going to work together. We’re going to get together and then go to them.”
An even wider gulf separates the legislative and executive branches on how to fully fund public employee pensions for the long run.
In June, the Supreme Court struck down the landmark reform legislation Christie touted for years as a signature achievement, allowing his reduced payments into the fund to stand. And the high court did not lay out a solution to what Justice Jaynee LaVecchia called the “tenuous financial status” of the fund, essentially handing it back to legislators and Christie to figure out.
Christie has promoted, but not gained union support for, a blueprint to freeze current pensions and transfer them to locally controlled plans similar to a 401(k). Democrats favor other alternatives, but even they are not in agreement.
Prieto met this summer with union leaders to discuss the outlines of a plan to spread out the state’s payments into the fund. Last month, Sweeney suggested a low-interest federal loan would cut down the long-term costs to the state while fulfilling its financial responsibilities.
Despite the differences among legislators, Senate Republican leader Tom Kean Jr. said “we will” find a fix for the pension fund, as well as transportation funding. “There are ways to work to find common ground,” he said.
One area on which Kean is pressing to find agreement is on reforms at the Port Authority more than a year and a half after the George Washington Bridge lane-closure scandal brought the bi-state agency’s many problems to light.
After Christie and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo vetoed reforms that were passed unanimously in both states, Kean proposed what he calls a hybrid of that bill and ideas put forth by a panel selected by the two governors.
Kean’s bill would streamline Port Authority management, establish a policy intended to prevent conflicts of interest, enhance financial and audit reports and establish a whistle-blower program, among other measures.
A “strikingly similar” bill, as Kean called it, was approved this year in New York, and Cuomo said he would sign it.
But it has not moved beyond committees in both the Senate and Assembly, and in order for it to become law, it must be passed by the Legislature before the term ends in January, as well as signed by both governors.
Both Sweeney and Prieto said reviving the stalled bill designed to protect hospital patients from shocking out-of-network costs is also a priority for the fall.
The bill had many components to try to protect consumers and limit insurers’ fees for care provided outside of a patient’s network, but it faced a host of concerns in the medical industry.
Rather than press on, Democratic sponsors shelved the bill in June.
Those sponsors — Assemblyman Craig Coughlin and Sen. Joseph Vitale, both of Middlesex County, as well as Assemblymen Gary Schaer of Passaic and Troy Singleton of Burlington County — worked over the summer to improve the bill in such a way that would preserve its intent while addressing industry concerns.
Prieto, who was not part of the bill’s rollout, got involved in the process as well by meeting with interested groups and hearing their input.
“What can be a middle-of-the-road compromise for everybody?” Prieto said. “It’s complex.”