Sweeney’s Caucus in Uncharted Territory After Sarlo Puts up Hostile Amendments to Smith Bill

Sarlo, right, and Smith.

It was close to bedlam as a caucus long nestled under the sturdy auspices of Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-3) appeared on the senate floor visibly cracked, and Senator Paul Sarlo (D-36) made the unprecedented move of offering hostile amendments to a renewable energy bill authored by party colleague Senator Bob Smith (D-17).

A staunch Sweeney loyalist going back to 2009, Budget Chairman Sarlo expressed frustration and anger over Smith’s bill end-running around his committee back to the floor of the senate after getting conditionally vetoed by Governor Phil Murphy. Sarlo said the principals, among them the administration, budget and the environmental committees, had a deal in place concerning the bill in question, cemented by handshakes.

“It should have been worked out before it got to the floor,” the Bergen Senator said.

And yet, “We find ourselves here with the original bill, not the handshake bill.”

It was – at the very least – a legislative process problem for Sarlo, who felt backdoored by Smith after the governor’s CV. Sweeney had sat on the bill until the end of the year – to the senate president’s credit, a Sarlo sympathizer acknowledged. But then it resurfaced without going through the environmental committee or through budget, which rankled Sarlo.

The landfill versus digesters bill would require certain generators of solid waste to separate and recycle food waste, and amend the definition of “Class I renewable energy.” Specifically, beginning one year after the effective date of the bill, every large food waste generator that is located within 25 road miles of an authorized food waste recycling facility and that generates an average projected volume of 52 or more tons per year of food waste would be required to:  (1) source separate its food waste from other solid waste; and (2) send that source separated food waste to an authorized food waste recycling facility that has available capacity and will accept it.

A dug-in Smith issued a joint statement with Assemblyman James Kennedy (D-22) on the merits of the bill.

“New Jersey and the rest of the country have a food waste problem that is spiraling out of control. Due to the methane, a greenhouse gas that is emitted from decomposing food in landfills, food waste is contributing to the global rise in temperatures. With this legislation passed out of the Senate today, concrete steps were taken to enact policy that will have a real impact and help New Jersey fight against climate change.”


Sarlo vehemently disagreed, arguing the impracticalities of A-2471, and seeking amendments that would exempt Department of Environmental Protection (DEP)-compliant public and private landfills.

“The bill before you today is not practical,” he said, standing on the senate floor this past Thursday. “The only other state that has done this is California. This is just silly. This is just a very, very silly bill and not practical. Support me on the amendments which will put this bill back to what was already voted on and agreed on in a bipartisan manner.”


State Senator Steve Oroho (R-24) threw in with Sarlo.

“We have an energy to waste system that has been put in and that our taxpayers pay for,” Oroho said. “I hope as this process goes along we go back to those [DEP-compliant] systems.”

Smith stood.

“Change is hard,” said the Middlesex senator. “Landfills are the third largest source of methane in the world. Methane has 84 times the impact of carbon dioxide. We have to do everything we possibly can to turn around the global climate change rushing at us now.”

Having going back and forth in the caucus room beforehand, Sarlo and Smith jousted some more on the


floor over the contents of the bill. Then Sarlo offered hostile amendments, which prompted Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-37) out of her chair. “This is a first for several of us,” she said. “With all due respect to my colleague from Bergen County, I move to table [the amendments].”

After locking up at 18-18 for an uncomfortably long minute, Weinberg’s measure passed by a vote of 21-18.

On the other side of that vote, Sarlo kept fighting the bill.

“I’m asking you to be practical,” he said. “I’m asking you to be practical and not require everybody to segregate. Do we really want to be California?”

Senator Troy Singleton (D-7) stepped in.

“What’s pragmatic is to get something done addressing the food waste issue,” Singleton said.

He sided with Smith.

So, ultimately, did state senator Ronald L. Rice (D-28).


“I voted for the bill,” he told InsiderNJ later. “There is a lot of merit to what Senator Sarlo was saying.” For Rice’s part, “You have to put in language that will ensure minority and women protections [on the trucking waste transport side].”

The bill passed by a vote of 22-17.

But those participants on the floor and in the caucus beforehand realized they had just experienced uncharted territory with Sarlo’s unsuccessful hostile amendments offering. Even those who agreed with Smith and recognized the merits in the bill and the urgency of the issue in question, acknowledged that Sarlo had a right to be upset about lack of protocol. Still, Smith had been irritated too. His original bill was severely weakened in the last session when the governor CV’d sections he wanted to preserved.

One source insisted the dustup demonstrated Sweeney’s diminished influence as the caucus’ mother hen. The senate president lost a member last year in the 1st District, making him more conscious of protecting Burlington County’s Senator Dawn Addiego (D-8) going forward, irritating allies who don’t approve of the strategy (“She could get primaried,” a source warned). Moreover, Democratic State Party Chairman John Currie and Essex County Democratic Committee Chairman LeRoy Jones last year decided to end the fight for chair without consultation from South Jersey. Bergen Senator Joe Lagana’s (D-38) loss of his judiciary seat after a caucus scrap showed some Bergen-South Jersey fracture, intensified by Sarlo’s own demonstration with the hostile amendments. Middlesex County Democratic Committee Chairman Kevin McCabe’s departure from the presidency of the Carpenters Contractor Trust suggested another retraction of influence in Sweeney’s Building Trades orbit. Other theories abounded. How had Smith – in the crosshairs of public opinion last year – exerted sufficient power in the caucus to actually bypass and outmuscle fellow good soldier Sarlo? Another source, however, present for all the caucus histrionics, said this was all about Smith and Sarlo, with Sweeney only a peripheral player in the drama, and eschewed larger nefarious political dimensions at work, or even an overall hand-slip of dominance by Sweeney.

It did, however, unavoidably appear a little volatile.

Insider NJ's Fred Snowflack provides an analysis of the ongoing NJ 2020 budget struggle, where Gov. Phil Murphy is withholding $235 million in spending until he is sure the state could pay for it. Senate President Steve Sweeney now wants state Treasurer Elizabeth Muoio to comment on when the funds will be released.


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