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Sweeney talks pensions, Menendez, transportation

In a wide-ranging interview Monday, Senate President Stephen Sweeney discussed Gov. Christie’s proposed overhaul of public employee benefits, the state’s near-depleted fund for transportation, and news of corruption charges expected to be brought against U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez.

In a wide-ranging interview Monday, Senate President Stephen Sweeney discussed Gov. Christie's proposed overhaul of public employee benefits, the state's near-depleted fund for transportation, and news of corruption charges expected to be brought against U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez.

We wrote a separate story about Sweeney's calling on Christie to file a nomination for attorney general here.

Sweeney (D., Gloucester) said he wouldn't consider Christie's proposed pension/benefit overhaul until the governor made "a good faith effort" to fully fund the pension system.

A state judge last month ordered Christie to try to work with the Legislature to find $1.6 billion -- the amount the governor cut amid a shortfall last year -- to add to the pension system for the fiscal year that ends June 30.

Christie's office said he would appeal, and even Sweeney said it was too late in the fiscal year to find that much money.

But Sweeney has proposed raising taxes on the state's highest earners for the fiscal 2016 budget to fund the pension system.

Christie last month proposed a $1.3 billion payment, which is about $1.7 billion less than what's required by a 2011 law that overhauled public-employee benefits and mandated bigger state payments.

"The problem we have is the economy," Sweeney said. Since Christie took office in 2010, "We have nothing to brag about," Sweeney said.

Christie says the Democrats never implemented his economic plan. He also boasts of private-sector job growth.

Christie's pension proposal, based on the recommendations of a panel he commissioned to study the problem, calls for local governments to align the health benefits they provide to public employees with benefits offered in the private sector.

The resulting savings would go to the state to pay down the pension system's unfunded liability.

"Why would they gave it to the state?" Sweeney said of local governments.

The Senate president also criticized Christie's plan for funding the Transportation Trust Fund for fiscal year 2016.

Christie's treasurer said the state would issue $600 million in bonds to cover transportation spending next year, down from $1.2 billion this year and far short of what Democrats and transportation interest groups have said was needed for road, bridge, and rail projects.

All the revenue from the state's 14.5 cent-per-gallon tax on gasoline already goes toward more than $1 billion in annual debt service.

On his radio show last month, Christie said the funding situation was "not a crisis."

"You really don't have a plan at $600 million," Sweeney said. "When you're talking about transportation, it's not enough."

Investing in infrastructure -- including building a new tunnel to Manhattan, possibly funded in part by revenues generated by North Jersey casinos -- would boost the economy, Sweeney said.

(The Legislature is considering passing a constitutional amendment that would expand gaming beyond Atlantic City. Voters would have to approve the measure.)

I also asked Sweeney about the perception of New Jersey's elected officials and politics, given the Menendez allegations and the Bridgegate scandal (plus the state's general notoriety with regard to corruption).

Sweeney noted that Menendez was innocent until proven guilty. (Federal investigators are reportedly focused on Menendez's relationship with a Florida doctor, a major donor to the senator.)

Menendez, a Democrat, last week denied wrongdoing and said he had "always conducted myself appropriately and in accordance with the law."

"There's a lack of trust in government nationally," Sweeney said Monday. "I think the only way we can earn that back is to demonstrate you do the right things. There's thousands of elected officials in the state of New Jersey -- thousands upon thousands."

"Are you ever going to erode or eliminate somebody doing something stupid? No. You're never going to eliminate it," Sweeney said.

"All you can do is try to make sure you don't do it. And you advise others not to do it.

"It's frustrating. New Jersey didn't have a sterling image to start with," Sweeney said. "My father always taught me something very early in life, which was never put something in your pocket that doesn't belong to you. Very good lesson."