Speaker Vincent Prieto (D-32) grew up on the streets of North Hudson, and learned early never to go into a fight without a sock knife, a Chinese throwing star or two, and the snub nose in the small of the back, or some such variation on those accoutrements, and now the statewide street fight features the formidable opposition of a governor and senate president.
The weapons aren’t blackjacks, fists and nunchucks but raw, hard numbers.
They love to vilify him, he says, but he’s the one who forges peace out of the exorcisms of political fiasco, he maintains.
“I’ve gone to war with [Governor] Chris Christie and turned around a deal on TTF [the Transportation Trust Fund],” said the speaker. “It was $1.8 billion [Senate President Steve Sweeney] and Chris Christie at $900 million. We ended at $1.4 billion. That was me. I was at $1.3 billion. I brokered the compromise.”
Now up against Prieto – as usual – in a schools funding formula taffy pull, Sweeney has enlisted the assistance of Senator Joe Pennacchio (R-26), according to NJTV. They say Prieto is not cooperating on creating a new fair schools funding formula.
“If you look at the speaker’s home base is Hudson County,” the veteran Republican senator told the public television network, a reference to Prieto, who doubles as chairman of the Hudson County Democratic Organization (HCDO). “Some of these towns we’re talking about that have glaring examples of the inequity of the formula are from Hudson County. Hopefully we can appeal to the better angels in his nature.”
“At this point, the Assembly hasn’t offered anything to fix this,” Sweeney put in. “Now I spoke to the speaker. I’m more than willing to listen and talk about things. But listening and talking are fine. Doing is what needs to be done.”
The senate president wants to bring every district to full funding, which requires phasing down over-funded ones and lifting those that are underfunded.
For more of NJTV’s interview with the senators, please go here, but the gist of it, according to reporter Brenda Flanagan, is they want “more state funding for special ed students and abolishing caps on extra aid for districts with booming enrollment. Both want to reconfigure adjustment aid, which lets over-funded districts like Jersey City in Hudson County pay comparatively little into its school budget.”
For his part, Prieto said he’s not impressed by the tag team of Sweeney and Pennacchio.
“What is the senate president’s plan?” the speaker wanted to know. “Sweeney has put a commission together that would create legislation with the treasury, and it would have to be voted on. The bottom line is you have no idea what the outcome would be. He hasn’t offered anything.”
Prieto said he prioritizes adequacy, or the amount of aid the state is constitutionally bound to give to maintain a fair and equal education for all of New Jersey’s students. “We can talk about all this, but I’m going to talk about reality,” said Prieto, who says that as long as the funding is “above adequacy, I’m okay with that.”
He wants to give relief. He’s okay, he said, with getting rid of enrollment caps; and is willing to look at adjustment aid and special education”but it should be on an enrollment basis. It obviously needs to be addressed. Pre-K? “We need to look at it,” he said.
Christie and/or Sweeney can try to vilify him as they sort out a way to work with the governor on a new schools funding formula, but Christie dumped his numbers ($13.8 billion) on schools 48 hours ahead of the budget address. They can squawk to the press, but “let me see a bill or a draft,” the speaker said. In the meantime, “The governor came out with uniform funding, which is simply unconstitutional,” Prieto said of Christie’s original design.
In the immediate aftermath of Christie’s $35.5 billion budget proposal, the speaker said he favors “tweaking” the schools funding formula, which currently unfairly impacts schools in his own district, North Bergen among them, he acknowledged. He stands by that initial reaction, noting his concern about hitting behind-the-eight-ball residents in towns like Jersey City with exorbitant tax hikes. People in other parts of the state welcome Jersey City as an economic driver as New Jersey experiences the benefit of pilot programs, Prieto argues, but may be too quick to clobber the residents in those towns with too quickly taking on the full cost burden of schools.
Again, he’s willing to look at options.
“I am not an obstructionist, but what’s your plan?” he wanted to know. “It’s great to go in front of a crowd and rail on. He [Sweeney] needs a villain and I have a mustache so maybe it’s easy, but put it on paper.”