After 8 years of single party control, 2010 brought in a new challenge for the state’s legislative Democrats, a Republican Governor. Governor Christie’s popularity along with his hubris created an even more complicated relationship. The Democrats had two choices: 1) model the politics of DC and block Christie’s entire agenda or 2) identify common sense priorities and continue to improve the state of the state. Fortunately for New Jersey, led by Senate President Sweeney the Democrats chose the latter.
The task in front of Sweeney was not easy and anything seen as a win for Christie was going to be seen by the left as a capitulation to a tyrannical right wing governor. On Sweeney’s side was a moderate legislative district and the most loyal, yet liberal, member of the senate, Majority Leader Weinberg. The combination of moderation and liberalism created the perfect formula to move Democratic values forward under a conservative Republican Governor.
Out of the gate, Senate President Sweeney would tackle the sustainability of the state’s pension and healthcare costs. While public employees fought hard against these reforms, the Democratic legislature negotiated a deal that would protect the pension system from insolvency. This first test proved that the Democrats are committed to fiscal responsibility and it propelled them to increase their legislative majorities in the 2013 election. Sweeney’s commitment to fiscal responsibility did not end with pension and benefit reform; he complimented this victory with a two percent property tax cap. This cap has helped hold property taxes down and has forced municipalities to share services and provide more efficient delivery of government service.
Following on their success of controlling government spending, Senator Sweeney moved on enacting a series of business tax reforms that even the Corzine administration had considered.
Sweeney’s successes go well beyond government efficiency as he became one of the state’s leading advocates of Marriage Equality. This progressive move was a revolution for Sweeney, who only a few years earlier had not supported Marriage Equality legislation. Sweeney was proving that he could navigate easily between socially progressive issues and issues of fiscal responsibility.
During his eight year tenure, Senate President Sweeney’s toughest challenge may have been the protection of the Supreme Court. While Governor Christie announced that he would remake the Supreme Court to mirror his philosophy, the Senate President was unwilling to sacrifice the court’s independence. Using the power of the Senate to reject the Governor’s ideological right leaning picks to the court, Sweeney solidified a balanced court led by Chief Justice Rabner.
The Sweeney led Democratic Legislature would continue to make progress weaving socially progressive ideals, fiscal responsibility, and job creation. Some of the most important Democratic successes include the re-authorization of the transportation trust fund, criminal justice reform including the elimination of bail, and guaranteeing an increase of the minimum wage every year.
At the end of eight years, Sweeney’s crowning achievement is putting the state back on track to fully fund public schools. This victory included an additional $100 million in school funding, $25 million for the expansion of pre-school, $25 million for extraordinary special education, and the redistribution of $30 million from over-funded school districts to the most underfunded.
It’s been eight years, and Sweeney has proven the most powerful governor in the country can be tamed by a tenacious Senate President committed to improving the state.
Kevin Drennan is retiring this week as the executive director of the Senate Majority Office.
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