New Jersey Teeters on the Brink of Shutdown as Top Democratic Leaders Engage in a Barnyard Brawl Over Education
In the presence of a newly elected Democratic governor and a Legislature controlled by Democrats, it would be logical to assume that the New Jersey State House is a model of unity, harmony, and efficiency. However, Governor Phil Murphy and Senate President Steve Sweeney are currently embroiled in a heated conflict.
The root cause of this dispute largely centers around education. Specifically, it revolves around the immense influence wielded by the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA), located near the State House in Trenton. The NJEA holds a deep reverence for Governor Murphy’s agenda and claims ownership over it, while maintaining a strong animosity towards Sweeney, who is the second-most influential Democrat in the state. This toxic dynamic is a significant factor in the potential government shutdown if the Legislature fails to pass a budget by June 30.
One might assume that Sweeney, with his background as an old-school Democrat, a former official in the iron workers union, and a father who understands the importance of educational advocacy due to his daughter’s Down syndrome, would fare well with teachers union executives, especially after the tumultuous eight years of Chris Christie’s administration. However, this assumption is far from reality. Let us examine the reasons for the strained relationship between the NJEA and Sweeney.
In 2011, Sweeney collaborated with Christie to enact a bipartisan pension and health benefits reform bill, which increased teachers’ premium contributions from 1.5 percent to a variable scale tied to salaries.
In 2012, Sweeney declared that he would not support a bill backed by the NJEA, which aimed to require local community approval for new charter school authorizations. He believed this would stifle the growth of charter schools entirely.
Furthermore, in 2016, Sweeney refused to introduce a bill to the Legislature that would add a referendum to the November ballot, mandating an increase in the state’s pension fund contributions. Currently, the pension fund is rated as the worst in the country, burdened with a debt of $124 billion according to Standard and Poor’s. In response to Sweeney’s resistance, the NJEA vowed to withhold endorsements and campaign contributions unless the Legislature voted on including the referendum. Sweeney expressed his outrage, accusing the NJEA of engaging in extortion and bribery.
This conflict escalated into a full-blown feud reminiscent of the War of the Roses. The NJEA executives, confident in their influence, directed their attacks at Sweeney’s re-election campaign in his district in South Jersey. How did they go about this? By endorsing a little-known councilman named Fran Grenier, who identifies as a Trump Republican, denies climate change, and advocates for the construction of a border wall. Sixteen Democratic senators sent a scathing letter to NJEA President Marie Blistan, denouncing the union’s support for Grenier, describing him as an extreme Republican ally of Chris Christie and Donald Trump, both of whom have been critical of teachers and unions throughout their political careers.
By the 2017 election day, the NJEA had spent an astounding $4.5 million on television and radio advertisements attacking Sweeney and promoting Grenier. This forced the state Democratic party to deplete its own resources. Ultimately, that particular race became the most expensive in the state’s history.
Naturally, Sweeney emerged victorious, leaving the NJEA not only deprived of significant sums of teachers’ dues but also alienating many of its members. This is unfortunate timing as the Supreme Court is on the verge of ruling in Janus v. AFSCME regarding the legality of unions requiring members to pay agency fees. Additionally, any hopes for a friendly and collaborative relationship between Governor Murphy and Sweeney have long since dissipated.
Patrick Murray from the Monmouth University Polling Institute noted, "When Sweeney was under attack by the NJEA just to retain his legislative seat, he did not feel that Phil Murphy did enough to pacify the NJEA’s assault. This is the crux of what we are witnessing today. It is quite easy to trace this conflict back to its origins."
Carl Golden of the Hughes Center for Public Policy went further, stating "The NJEA’s aggressive campaign and Murphy’s lack of response will go down as one of the greatest political mistakes in modern New Jersey history."
Senator Bob Smith remarked, "This places the NJEA in the first circle of Dante’s Inferno for the next four years."
The last issue on the agenda is causing tension on State Street and is becoming a major point of disagreement between the two prominent Democrats. While Murphy has scaled back his unrealistic promises, his proposed budget includes a substantial $1.7 billion tax increase. This increase is primarily aimed at providing greater state school aid to districts that are currently underfunded, without reducing aid to districts that are already well-funded. Sweeney opposes raising taxes, mainly due to the impact of the new federal bill which caps state and local tax deductions at $10,000. This cap will have a significant impact on heavily taxed individuals in New Jersey. Additionally, Sweeney is determined to revise the school funding formula, which has remained unchanged for a long time. This formula currently directs excessive amounts of funding to districts that are no longer as economically disadvantaged, while neglecting others. For instance, Jersey City, which has become popular among millennials, is receiving $112 million more aid each year than it actually requires, resulting in a spending of $22,751 per student. On the other hand, Chesterfield Township, the most underfunded district in New Jersey, is only receiving 11 percent of the aid it deserves, with an annual cost per pupil of $11,381. Sweeney’s plan aims to redistribute state aid by taking from Jersey City and reallocating it to Chesterfield.
However, the NJEA, despite their previous error in endorsing a candidate similar to Trump, opposes any changes to the funding formula. Other affiliated lobbying groups, such as the Education Law Center, known for their involvement in legal battles over outdated funding allocations 25 years ago, hold the same stance. Meanwhile, Murphy, who is still infatuated with the NJEA, shows reluctance in reducing funding for any district.
This leaves New Jerseyans just three weeks away from a potential government shutdown, bringing back a feeling of déjà vu. After all, one of Christie’s final blunders was shutting down the government and then being captured by paparazzi as he relaxed and soaked up the sun at the closed-off Island Beach State Park over the July 4 weekend. While Murphy may not be one to lounge on the beach, if he cannot distance himself from the influential members of the NJEA, he may find himself in hot water.
Laura Waters, an education policy and politics writer, shares her insights on platforms like NJ Left Behind, New York School Talk, Education Post, and other publications. She recently completed a 12-year tenure on her local school board in Lawrence, New Jersey, serving as president for nine of those years.
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