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.
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