Senate President Stephen Sweeney said Wednesday that threats by public worker unions to withhold campaign contributions unless the Senate passes pension legislation amounts to "bribery" and "extortion" and should be investigated by state and federal officials.At a Statehouse news conference, Sweeney (D-Gloucester) responded to reports the state's largest teachers union, the New Jersey Education Association, told county Democratic Party chairmen it wouldn't release campaign cash until next spring as a cudgel to force action on a proposed constitutional amendment guaranteeing billions of dollars in contributions to the government worker pension fund.Sweeney also said his office received a direct threat from the president of the Fraternal Order of Police. He penned letters to the U.S. attorney and state attorney general requesting investigate the threats as violations of both state and federal bribery laws."I think a crime was committed," Sweeney said. He added that unions can do what they want with their money, but when they hold it hostage to specific official action, it goes beyond politics as usual.
Before we get into the weeds, let's take a minute to unpack just how ridiculous Sweeney's argument is on its face:"These unions are no longer engaging in public advocacy issues focused on education of our children," Sweeney said. "Instead they have made specific threats regarding specific legislative actions that benefit the pocketbooks of its members. These unions have made it clear that unless they get their way, they will deliver on their threats. Using political and financial threats to coerce public officials is an assault on the integrity of the legislative process and honest government. And it could be illegal." [emphasis mine]
Sweeney admits that unions "can do what they want with their money." OK -- so what, then, are the chances a public employee union will reward a politician for breaking an explicit promise he made to their members?
The answer, of course, is: none. And make no mistake -- Sweeney most definitely broke his promise to every teacher, cop, and other public employee in this state:
That's an ad created by the NJEA. Does anyone think it should be illegal for the union to make this ad? That a union shouldn't have the right to advocate publicly for its preferred positions? That it should just keep giving money over to candidates who blatantly break promises they make to its members?
Maybe Sweeney thinks the problem is that the police and teachers unions told him point blank they wouldn't support his party if he didn't do what he promised he would do. By that logic, if the unions just withhold their money, but don't say why, everything is fine.
A quid pro quo, by definition, requires "something for something." Steve Sweeney, however, thinks it's illegal if he does nothing and gets nothing. Just how entitled does he think he is to keep getting campaign money from public employee unions? Is he really that delusional?
The absurdity of American campaign finance is, of course, a blight on our nation's various governments. The formalism of politicians collecting cash from all sorts of individuals and interested parities, and then turning around and claiming they somehow aren't affected by those donations, is simply ridiculous. And it's especially noxious to see that posturing coming from the likes of Sweeney, who's used his campaign funds in the past to buy cigars and steak dinners.
Nothing would make me happier than getting money out of politics once and for all. But unlike Senator Kean, I want all of it out -- not just contributions from public employee unions. Until that happy day, however, it would be stupid for NJEA or any other union to not use its ability to raise campaign funds to influence legislation. If the building trade unions and the realtors and Verizon and Cablevision and the NRA can all give Sweeney campaign funds and expect a seat at the table, why not the state's cops and teachers?
By the way -- and this is a point that gets lost on folks like the Star-Ledger's Tom Moran, who will pretty much support anything if it hurts the NJEA -- unions can't, by law, compel their members to give political contributions. Federal case law explicitly allows members who don't want to fund ads like the one above a way to opt-out.
What unions can do is one of two things: fund "issue" ads and other activity that isn't coordinated with or sending funds directly to candidates, or fund candidates through a PAC that distributes voluntary contributions from its members. It's a bit hard to tell based on the current reporting, but it seems pretty clear that the Democratic county chairmen were told the money for the latter is what will be stopping.
NJEA's PAC consists of members who vote on whether or not to support a particular candidate. So it's teachers themselves who make the decisions about whether candidates will get money that they voluntarily donate to the PAC (full disclosure: yes, damn right I contribute to NJEA's PAC). And what have those teachers had to put up with over the past few years?
As I've outlined before, we teachers -- and most NJ public employees -- have been the only ones sacrificing anything to fix our fiscal mess over the last several years. When I started teaching in NJ, my pension contribution was 5%; now it's on its way to 7.5%, we've lost our COLA, and the benefit is one of the least generous in the nation. We're also paying way more for our health care and getting way less; again, our health benefits are some of the stingiest in the country.
This can all be laid at the feet of Steve Sweeney who, rather than stand up to Chris Christie when he was beating up teachers, stood beside him and pushed through Chapter 78. That law was enacted with the promise that the state would finally start meeting its obligations to its middle-class employees; of course, it never did.
Steve Sweeney, however, can't accept responsibility for this failure. He threatens legal actions against the organizations that stand up for New Jersey public employees -- the only ones who have met their obligations. Rather than apologize for breaking his word, he is breaking under the pressure of a coordinated push by teachers, cops, and other public workers to do right by us. He bullies and blusters and reneges on his promises -- and then gets angry when anyone points out his faults.
A couple of angry guys who should never be allowed to win high office.