By Dan Perez
New Jersey Senate President Stephen M. Sweeney (D-West Deptford) described his plans for a $750 million bond initiative to fund higher education and raise the state’s minimum wage in front of an audience of students, faculty and community members in the Mercer Room on Monday night.
One of the main points Sweeney addressed was the work he has done to improve funding for higher education.
“We haven’t made an investment in higher education since 1988 and the state is in trouble,” Sweeney said. “We’re not showing commitment to industries that are moving to New Jersey from states like Massachusetts.
When these industries that need college-educated workers are going to other places because of those states’ universities, it’s because they’re making investments to say ‘We want those jobs.’”
The Higher Education Bond Initiative, led by Sweeney, was approved by the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee in June. The referendum, which supports financing building projects and improvements throughout New Jersey’s higher education institutions, is set to be included on November’s voting ballot.
“Sen. Sweeney has taken initiative in supporting a piece of legislation that allows millions of dollars to go toward the future of our state’s youth,” President Mordechai Rozanski said. “For the first time in a quarter of a century it will allow us to build up our academic enterprises. I hope everybody will support the referendum.”
Sweeney touched on his view of partisanship during the event.
“We have a problem in this country right now because so many people are in one of two corners on issues,” he said. “I’m a moderate democrat and a fiscal conservative. When Gov. Christie got elected was when I became a Senate president. I sat down with him and explained that we have too many problems in the state and need to work together to fix them.”
Sweeney also spoke about raising the state’s minimum wage.
“I sponsored the last minimum wage increase in 2005 and want to put it on my ballot again this year,” he said. “It raises the standard of living for everyone in the state. Every one of those people will spend it in New Jersey. A higher minimum wage raises the bar for everyone.”
Senior Jonathan Josephs asked the Senate president to look at the opposite side of raising the minimum wage during the question and answer part of the event.
“I wanted to look at the other side where business owners might look at the increase and employ less people to offset costs,” Josephs said.
The Senate president cited a study conducted in Kansas shortly after Pennsylvania raised its minimum wage.
“When Pennsylvania did it in 2005 a study came out that said states with higher minimum wages have more productive workers,” Sweeney responded. “The money would be spent throughout the state. That extra dollar you’re giving someone isn’t going to be put in the bank — it will be spent in New Jersey.”
Robert Polakowski, of Lawrence Township, asked Sweeney if his journey in politics would end after his Senate presidency.
“I’ve never planned anything in life,” Sweeney said. “I never planned on being a senator. Sometimes if you do the right things and do what you believe in you will end up in good places. Who knows where life will take me next?”
Sweeney also discussed his support of same-sex marriage in the state.
“It’s a matter of civil rights,” he said. “I’ve heard person after person say they support civil unions, but they don’t support same-sex marriage. What’s the difference? Government doesn’t need to get into the bedrooms of people’s homes and shouldn’t tell people who they can love and who they can’t.”
Sweeney, who didn’t attend college, graduated from Pennsauken High School before becoming the general organizer for the International Association of Ironworkers. He has served as a senator since 2002, Senate majority leader from 2008-2010 and Senate president since 2010.
The event, sponsored by the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics, marked Sweeney’s first appearance at Rider. Bringing politicians like Sweeney to Rider is important because it allows students to observe a high-ranking official in New Jersey politics face-to-face, said Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute.
“The Senate president is involved in all parts of New Jersey government,” Dworkin said.“Sweeney is the most important official in the state behind Gov. Christie. We were glad to bring him to speak at Rider beceause it’s a good fit for the school. The bond initiative he supports is a positive thing for educational institutions like Rider.”
The guest next sponsored by The Rebovich Institute is Christine Todd Whitman, former governor of New Jersey, on Oct. 3 at 7 p.m.