Stephen Sweeney on NJ Budget Battles

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Welcome to Politics Bites, where every afternoon at It's A Free Country, we bring you the unmissable quotes from the morning's political conversations on WNYC. Today on the Brian Lehrer Show, New Jersey Senate president Stephen Sweeney discusses budget battles in New Jersey.

This fall voters will vote on every member i the entire New Jersey legislature. The vote may well turn out to be a referendum on Governor Chris Christie and his budget cutting, and this November’s election may be a preview of things to come next November on the national stage.   

Senator Sweeney was an ally of Christie's during the big health and pension reform deal, angering liberals and the unions, who felt Sweeney was betraying them. But when Christie began with the line item vetoes to the budget, Sweeney lashed out angrily.

Sweeney explained that he backed the governor on requiring workers to pay more in contributions to their health care plans and pensions, because, he said, “it had to be done.”

I raised this issue in 2006 to fix the pension and health care system and basically was shouted down with inflatable rats and an administration that wouldn’t support us.

Christie’s defense of his actions has been to claim that by cutting salaries to make the worker’s contribution larger, he was actually saving their pensions. Sweeney said Christie “got that  from me.”

The legislature submitted their budget to the governor expecting some cuts, but Sweeney claimed that in his zealousness to cut, the governor even cut the budget that he submitted. Christie’s defenders say that those cuts were made, not out of spite, but because of lower-than-projected fiscal revenue returns. Sweeney doesn't buy it.

It’s not true. They were actually better. You know, they were better than when he proposed his budget…He cut nine hundred million dollars. You know, so for $289 or $300 million, you didn’t have to cut nine-hundred million. And where he cut is what caused the problems.

After Christie vetoed so many items in the budget, the relationship soured, with Sweeney calling Christie “mean spirited” and a “bastard.”

We accomplished some things, pension and health reform in a really bipartisan fashion, and then watched the Governor just, in a very mean-spirited and cruel way, go after the most vulnerable people in this state.

Christie cut funding to programs for sexually abused children, programs to provide medicine to AIDS patients, and early intervention programs to help disabled children. He also cut transitional aid to distressed cities, such as Camden and Newark, though he eventually relented on the transitional aid.

Know what the problem was? Some of those communities were talking to bankruptcy attorneys. You know the governor talks about our bond rating all the time. You can only imagine what would happen if one of our large urban areas filed bankruptcy. So the governor says "I always intended to restore it”, then why did you cut it? It’s not a legitimate argument.

Christie restored the aid to distressed cities, but left some of the other programs shut out of the budget, claiming he can make up the difference with federal aid. Sweeney thinks the federal aid offer is an attempt to deflect the criticism Christie received after making the cuts.

When people started looking at these cuts, they were getting angry like I was...People see this as mean-spirited, cruel, honestly it’s heartless. Look, if you want to fight with me, fight with me. But don’t take innocent hostages.