Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) yesterday scored yet another bipartisan legislative victory when the Senate passed his controversial bill that would force municipalities to share services or face a loss of state aid.
But Sweeney’s bill, which has Republican Gov. Chris Christie’s enthusiastic support, faces an uncertain future in the state Assembly, where Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-Essex) is not sold on Sweeney’s “big stick” approach to compel municipal savings.
For Sweeney, who championed shared services on a county level as a Gloucester County freeholder, yesterday’s 25-9 Senate vote was the latest step in his 22-month battle to hold down property taxes forcing municipalities to share services where savings can be proven. “We’ve tried the carrot. We need to try the stick,” Sweeney is fond of saying. “We need to try the stick.”
“If governments don’t wish to run their towns more cost-effectively, there is no reason the taxpayers of New Jersey should have to foot their bill,” Sweeney said yesterday, referring to the provision in his bill that would give voters the option of approving shared services, but take away state aid equivalent to the projected cost savings from any town whose voters reject shared services. “Taxpayers of this state need a break and shared services is one way to give it to them.”
Sweeney’s bill shifts the principal responsibility for initiating shared services from municipalities to New Jersey’s Local Unit Alignment, Reorganization, and Consolidation Commission (LUARCC), which would be empowered not only to study municipal governments to determine where taxpayer dollars could be saved. If the towns involved fail to enact a LUARCC-recommended shared services agreement, the plan would go on the ballot as a referendum question. Voters in any town rejecting such a shared-services ballot question would lose state aid.
For Sweeney, the shared-services bill is just the latest in a series of initiatives in which he has found himself on the same side as Christie and marshaled a bipartisan coalition to pass controversial legislation. In the most prominent case, Sweeney and Christie partnered last year to pass legislation that required teachers, police, and state and local government employees to contribute more toward their pensions and healthcare coverage and stripped public employees of the right to collectively bargain over healthcare issues for four years – a decision that cost Sweeney, an Ironworkers Union leader, the endorsement of the New Jersey State AFL-CIO for his 2011 reelection campaign.
Ironically, Sweeney’s shared-services bill passed just two days after Christie, who is riding a wave of popularity in the wake of his Hurricane Sandy performance, announced his decision to run for reelection as governor next year. It also comes amid rising speculation that Sweeney has decided to run for the Democratic nomination for governor against Christie if Newark Mayor Cory Booker, who is regarded as the strongest Democratic challenger, decides to pass up an uphill race against Christie and go for the U.S. Senate seat now held by Democrat Frank Lautenberg in 2014 instead.
Sweeney’s prime cosponsors on his shared-services bill were a pair of prominent Republicans and Christie allies-- Senator Joseph Kyrillos (R-Monmouth), who lost his bid for the U.S. Senate against Democratic incumbent Robert Menendez three weeks ago, and Senator Kevin O’Toole (R-Essex), one of the ranking Republicans on the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee.
Sweeney, Kyrillos and O’Toole made a series of concessions to garner the votes needed to get the bill through the Senate budget committee two weeks ago and through the Senate yesterday.
“While I would like to have seen us go further with this bill in removing some of the barriers towns face in sharing and consolidating services, this is an important first step,” Kyrillos said. “Tax dollars cannot continue to underwrite duplicative and unnecessary layers of government at the local level. New Jersey has reached the point with regard to property taxes where home rule is not justification enough for refusing to share services.”
However, the amendments made to Sweeney’s shared-services bill two weeks ago only deepened the opposition of the New Jersey State League of Municipalities.
Bill Dressel, the League’s longtime executive director, noted that his organization’s main objection was to the bill’s anti-home rule provision, which “would, on the one hand, allow the voters to express their will; but on the other hand, inform those voters that they will be penalized if their will does not comport with that of a majority of the appointed members of the Local Unit Alignment, Reorganization and Consolidation Commission.”
But Dressel added that the amendments made by the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee actually stripped the legislation of a series of provisions favored by the state’s mayors.
The original version of the bill “removed or reduced many of the roadblocks that increase the costs of shared services – things like terminal leave, pay, civil service mandates, employee tenure requirements – many of the original provisions in bill could reduce the costs and hurdles to shared services and consolidations, produce municipal savings and promote relief for our taxpayers,” Dressel noted. “No longer would Civil Service be an impediment to sharing services.”
However, the newly amended bill would require any non-Civil Service municipality that shares services with a Civil Service municipality to be brought into the Civil Service system. Another amendment would require municipalities sharing services to abide by Civil Service rules and the seniority provisions of collective bargaining agreements in determining which employees would keep their jobs after a service consolidation, Dressel noted.
Finally, the bill requires LUARCC to target its first studies toward municipalities that do not currently share services – a decision that state Sen. Steven V. Oroho (R-Sussex) questioned during the brief Senate floor debate yesterday, noting that most municipalities of any size already share services.
Oliver, the Assembly speaker who teamed up with Sweeney to pass the controversial pension and health benefits bill and other bipartisan legislation, is not yet on board with Sweeney’s shared-services legislation.
Unlike the Senate, where sponsors Sweeney, Kyrillos and O’Toole are among the leaders of their respective caucuses, the Assembly’s Democratic bill sponsors are Assemblywoman Pamela Lampitt and Assembly Paul Moriarty, a pair of Camden County Democrats who like Sweeney are from South Jersey, but are not high up in the caucus leadership.
Assemblyman Declan O’Scanlon (R-Monmouth), the ranking Republican on the Assembly Budget Committee, is a cosponsor of the shared-services bill, signaling Christie’s support, but the bill has yet to be heard by any Assembly committee, and Sweeney still has to persuade Oliver to post the bill for a vote– a decision that could be complicated by Oliver’s pledge to her caucus a year ago not to put up any bill that did not have the required 41 votes for passage in the 48-member Democratic caucus.
“The Assembly hasn’t taken up the bill as of this moment,” Tom Hester, Oliver’s spokesman, responded tersely to an email asking if the speaker had taken a position on the bill.
Sweeney, however, expressed optimism yesterday that Oliver would ultimately allow his shared-services bill to move.
“I would hope that she would recognize that it’s a priority to me, like I recognize priorities of hers,” Sweeney told The Record after yesterday’s Senate session, in which he shepherded through Oliver’s bill to raise the state’s minimum wage.
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