N.J. leaders strike budget deal that raises taxes on millionaires, corporations

Stephen Sweeney, Phil Murphy and Craig Coughlin are pictured. |AP Photo

Gov. Phil Murphy (center) speaks during a news conference on Saturday in Trenton announcing a budget deal between him and Democratic legislative leaders, including Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (left) and Sen. Stephen Sweeney (D-New Deptford). | Julio Cortez/AP Photo

TRENTON, N.J. — New Jersey averted its second state shutdown in two years on Saturday when Gov. Phil Murphy and legislative leaders struck a deal just hours before the state budget deadline, putting an end to a bitter fight that had divided Democrats and drawn the attention of national party leaders.

After an intense negotiating session that lasted for more than four hours, Murphy joined state Senate President Steve Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin at a press conference early Saturday evening to announce they had settled their months-long feud over who had the best plan to raise new taxes.

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In the end, they agreed to a $37.4 billion budget that raises taxes on millionaires earning $5 million or more and on some corporations, merging their concepts into one plan. Murphy also agreed to drop his proposal to restore the state sales tax to 7 percent.

The three men chalked up their sharp words in recent weeks to a family feud.

“This is not a win for any of us individually,” Murphy said from the podium in his office, surrounded by the lawmakers he’d been at war with for weeks. “This is a win for the middle class and working families and those who look up and dream to be in the middle class all across New Jersey. There is so much we agree upon. There was never a disagreement over our values or our principals, just over how to get there.”

New Jersey is the only state in the nation that hasn’t enact some kind of spending plan ahead of the start of the new fiscal year on Sunday. The governor and the legislative leaders had until midnight to get a budget in place.

The state will still miss the deadline, with both houses of the Democrat-controlled Legislature scheduled to vote on the plan at 8 a.m. Sunday. But Murphy has the power to keep government running until a spending plan is signed, and said he would do so.

“Let me be clear: There will be no shutdown,” the governor declared. “The parks and beaches are open.”

The accord comes a year after former Republican Gov. Chris Christie was photographed sitting on an empty state beach in the middle of a similar feud. Trenton seemed to be veering in the same direction this year, with name-calling and increasingly personal accusations that painted the image of a state government in full political meltdown.

In recent days, the dispute drew opinions from some big names, including former Vice President Al Gore, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean and comedian Chelsea Handler, all of whom took the governor’s side as he pushed a liberal vision of “tax fairness.”

Despite months of negotiations, Murphy and the legislative leaders had found themselves struggling to come to terms over how to pay for hundreds of millions of dollars in new spending they had all agreed to support. Most of the money goes to boosting state aid to school districts and fixing the state’s troubled commuter transportation agency, NJ Transit.

In the end, their feud had come down to this: Murphy wanted to raise taxes on millionaires. Sweeney wanted to raise taxes on corporations. They finally agreed on Saturday to blend both ideas into one proposal.

The deal will increase the tax rate on those earning more than $5 million per year to 10.75 percent, up from the current 8.97 percent. Murphy had previously been pushing that higher rate on everyone earning more than $1 million.

The two sides settled on a four-year increase in the corporate business tax, imposing a surcharge on all companies earning more than $1 million per year. The surcharge will increase the current 9 percent rate by 2.5 percent in the first two years, before phasing out over two years. Sweeney has previously proposed a 3 percent surcharge that would have given New Jersey the highest corporate tax rate in America.

The two tax increases will provide $440 million in new revenue over the fiscal year.

“We wanted a budget that protected New Jersey taxpayers and made sure those that received the largest windfall from the Donald Trump tax cuts paid their fair share,” Coughlin said.

The kumbaya moment offered a stark contrast to the tough-guy positions the lawmakers had staked out just hours earlier. Murphy and the legislative leaders found themselves so angry with each other that they took to public name calling.

Murphy, a former Goldman Sachs executive and former U.S. Ambassador to Germany, and Sweeney, a top official in an ironworkers union who’s led the Senate for eight years, both accused each other of acting like Christie, the wildly unpopular former governor who left office in January.

On Saturday morning, Sweeney said he thought Murphy, a liberal who campaigned on a promise to address income inequality, was blocking his effort to raise taxes on companies for his own personal gain.

“We think he’s under-taxing corporations, and I’m starting to understand why: Because he makes his livelihood from corporate dividends,” Sweeney said in an interview with POLITICO.

A day earlier, Murphy and his lieutenant governor, former Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver, said Sweeney and Coughlin had offered merely “symbolic” proposals that failed to address the very issues they campaigned on last year.

“I have never seen the level of obstructionism come from the legislative leadership as I am seeing in this cycle,” Oliver, who has worked on 15 budgets, said Friday night. “They do not want to work with Governor Murphy.”

Half a day later, Sweeney had completely changed his tone, joining Murphy and Coughlin in pushing a theme of unity.

“I want to start by thanking the governor and our leadership teams,” the Senate president said. “It’s been one hell of a journey. As the governor said, it’s never been a disagreement over where we wanted to go, it’s how we got there. And we all got to a place we think is fair.”

Murphy said they had “honest, blunt, sometimes heated, yet always civil discussions” and, in the end, got to the right place within the time they had.

“There is so much we agree upon,” he said. “There was never a disagreement over our values or our principles, just over how to get there.“

At the end of their press conference, Murphy and Sweeney shook hands and embraced, the Senate president patting the governor on the back twice before saying, Good job.”

“You, too,” Murphy replied.


Trump era ramps up tech worker revolt

Technology companies are facing a new crisis as their employees press executives to rethink their work with the Trump administration and in many cases drop lucrative federal contracts.

The controversy comes amid heated national debates on immigration, law enforcement and surveillance — issues on which Silicon Valley’s workforce wants the industry to take a stand.

In the past month, workers at Google, Microsoft, Amazon and Salesforce have organized and written letters calling on CEOs to cancel or review contracts with government agencies whose work the employees say raises ethical questions.

The groundswell of opposition to many industry practices and projects is forcing executives to revisit their work, a marked shift in how they operate.


“I think it seems to be a part of a growing trend in how employees are looking for jobs. They’re trying to find companies that they feel have similar values to them,” said David Hess, a University of Michigan Ross School of Business professor on business law and ethics.

“Once they then get into the workforce they want to make sure the companies still have similar values.”

The industry has long been at loggerheads with President TrumpDonald John TrumpMike Huckabee: If Trump nominated Moses to the Supreme Court Dems would still be unhappy Trump admin likely to detain migrant families for months during immigration proceedings: report ICE chief to protesters: We’re not the ones separating families MORE. In the president’s first year, tech companies took a prominent role in opposing his ban on travelers from Muslim majority countries.

But that opposition has been ramped up by new controversies, in particular the administration’s zero tolerance policy on illegal border crossings and concerns about the use of tech tools for surveillance and law enforcement.

Tech workers are citing historical examples, saying they don’t want to see their companies take on roles that parallel IBM’s work during the Holocaust when it leased Nazi Germany punch card machines that helped them identify and track Jewish people.

Such concerns spurred workers at Google to organize against the company’s Project Maven — an artificial intelligence tool the Pentagon used to improve its drone warfare, according to Gizmodo.  

Workers at other companies quickly followed suit.

Microsoft employees are pushing CEO Satya Nadella to drop the company’s contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in protest over the agency separating children from families caught crossing the southern border illegally.

“We believe that Microsoft must take an ethical stand, and put children and families above profits,” they wrote in a letter to Nadella. “As the people who build the technologies that Microsoft profits from, we refuse to be complicit.”

At Amazon, workers banded together to oppose the company selling its facial recognition software to law enforcement agencies out of fears the technology could harm marginalized communities.

Salesforce workers earlier this week penned their own letter to CEO Marc Benioff urging him to review its contract with Customs and Border Protection, also out of concern with the administration’s family separation policy.

Those actions have garnered some early successes.

Google said it would not renew its Project Maven contract with the Pentagon reportedly because of pressure from employees.

Salesforce Chief Equality Officer Tony Prophet, met with employees in response to their letter, a source with knowledge of the meeting told The Hill.

And Nadella sent employees an all staff email disavowing ICE’s work in separating families at the border and saying that Microsoft’s contracts did not pertain to those practices.

Employees say that they want to see more action though.

One Microsoft employee involved in organizing the letter opposing the company’s ICE contract told The Hill spoke that Nadella’s response did not go far enough.

“The response was empty. It was shallow. He just said ‘we denounce it.’ It didn’t do anything,” the employee said.

Amazon has yet to publicly respond to worker activism at its company.

A spokesperson for the Tech Workers Coalition, a labor group for industry workers, said the spike in organizing is partly because of the nature of some of the industry’s contracts.

“These are multi-million dollar government contracts. So they’re not off-the-shelf technology, but are actually designed for surveillance, detention, and deportation,” the spokesperson said. “They require regular maintenance and support from tech workers, many who are immigrants or come from immigrant families.”

The Tech Workers Coalition has voiced its support for employee-organizing efforts and more generally workers rights in the tech industry.

Not everyone is supportive of the new worker activism in Silicon Valley, though.

Lawmakers have criticized criticized Google for saying that it wouldn’t renew its contract with Pentagon, while noting that it still has a partnership with Chinese phone maker Huawei.

Huawei has raised national security concerns in the U.S. over the company’s close ties with China’s government.

“While we regret that Google did not want to continue a long and fruitful tradition of collaboration between the military and technology companies we are even more disappointed that Google apparently is more willing to support the Chinese Communist Party than the U.S.,” a group of lawmakers led by Rep. Mike ConawayKenneth (Mike) Michael ConawayOvernight Defense: VA pick breezes through confirmation hearing | House votes to move on defense bill negotiations | Senate bill would set ‘stringent’ oversight on North Korea talks Religious leaders push back on Republicans for new GOP tax law Hillicon Valley: New FTC chief eyes shake up of tech regulation | Lawmakers target Google, Huawei partnership | Microsoft employees voice anger over ICE contract MORE (R-Texas) wrote.

Conaway called Google’s actions “disappointing” in a statement to The Hill, questioning having “lucrative partnerships with morally questionable foreign entities that are not in America’s best interest.”

Former Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work shared similar concerns during a conference on Tuesday.

“They say, ‘What if the work is ultimately used to take lives. But what if it saves American lives? 500 American lives? Or 500 lives of our allies?” he said.

Much of that criticism though is coming primarily from conservatives or GOP lawmakers, who are unlikely to sway the overwhelmingly left-leaning Silicon Valley worker force

Hess said it’s unlikely the protests will slow down. He said the activism is part of a growing trend that is seeing both workers and the general public press corporations to take stands on controversial issues.

Hess pointed toward pressure on companies to come out against President Trump’s travel ban and bills in states like North Carolina and Texas targeting transgender rights.

“Trump has created a sense among some groups that the government isn’t going to protect things they care about,” said Hess.

“So now people see companies [as] another place to pressure … to get results.”


New acting ICE head named as agency continues to be criticized

 Ronald D. Vitiello is pictured. | Getty Images

Ronald D. Vitiello, the newly named acting head of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, speaks during a Department of Homeland Security press conference to announce end-of-year numbers regarding immigration enforcement on Dec. 5. | Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen on Saturday announced the new acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, an agency that has become a pariah among some progressives and Democratic lawmakers who have in recent weeks said it should be abolished.

Nielsen named Ronald D. Vitiello, currently the acting deputy commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, as both the deputy director and acting director of ICE. Vitiello’s new roles are effectively immediately.

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“Deputy Commissioner Vitiello brings to ICE the vision and leadership needed to continue the exceptional work the agency is doing to accomplish its crucial national security and public safety missions,” Nielsen said in a statement accompanying the announcement.

Vitiello will replace Thomas Homan, the current acting director of ICE, who retires this month. Senate Democrats’ intense opposition stalled Homan’s confirmation after the White House nominated him November to become the agency’s director.

According to the release, Vitiello has been a part of the larger homeland security field for more than three decades, starting out as a border patrol agent.

The appointment comes at a critical time in ICE’s history. After agitation from progressive activists, a number of Democratic lawmakers are pushing to abolish ICE, an agency that was created in the wake of the September 11 attacks.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) tweeted Thursday that ICE “has become a deportation force.”

President Donald Trump has delighted in the political fracas over the agency, seeking to portray calls to rein in ICE as overly extreme and indicative of a less stringent approach to immigration enforcement. He wrote on Twitter Saturday that the “radical left” wants ICE agents out.

“To the great and brave men and women of ICE, do not worry or lose your spirit,” Trump tweeted. “You are doing a fantastic job of keeping us safe by eradicating the worst criminal elements. So brave!”


Maxine Waters responds to death threats: ‘You better shoot straight’

Rep. Maxine WatersMaxine Moore WatersHouse GOP chairman: Death threats against Maxine Waters are ‘intolerable’ Democrats can kiss swing voters goodbye with progressive ballot Clinton rips complaints about civility: ‘What is more uncivil and cruel than taking children away?’ MORE (D-Calif.) has addressed a series of recent death threats she said she has received, telling would-be threateners to “shoot straight” during an immigration rally on Saturday.

“I know that there are those who are talking about censuring me, talking about kicking me out of Congress, talking about shooting me, talking about hanging me,” Waters told the crowd in Los Angeles.

“All I have to say is this, if you shoot me you better shoot straight, there’s nothing like a wounded animal,” she added to cheers.


Waters was forced to cancel a pair of events in Alabama and Texas this week after a “very serious death threat.”

She said she has been getting harassed after she called for protesters to confront Trump administration officials in public over its “zero tolerance” immigration policy.

Trump slammed Waters during a campaign rally earlier this week after inaccurately claiming in a tweet that Waters called for protesters to harm his supporters.

“As the President has continued to lie and falsely claim that I encouraged people to assault his supporters, while also offering a veiled threat that I should ‘be careful’, even more individuals are leaving (threatening) messages and sending hostile mail to my office,” Waters said in the statement, according to CNN.

Waters insisted that she was not calling for harm and said she believes in “peaceful protest.”

The Democrat then appeared on MSNBC’s “All In With Chris Hayes” on Monday and read a list of times when Trump has used physically charged rhetoric.

Waters tore into Trump during the rally on Saturday.

“How dare you take the babies from her mother’s arms,” Waters said.

The lawmaker has been criticizing the Trump administration’s zero tolerance policy which previously separated migrant children from their parents.

Trump signed an executive order earlier this month to end the practice of family separations.

“Families Belong Together” marches took place all across the country on Saturday as thousands of children have yet to be reunited with their families.


Career diplomat Thornton to leave State Department

Susan Thornton is pictured. | AP Photo

“We are grateful for her service of over two and a half decades to the Department of State,” a spokeswoman said of acting assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Susan Thornton. | Jacquelyn Martin/AP Photo

The State Department is losing another career diplomat, as a top official for East Asian and Pacific policy announced her intention to retire at the end of July.

State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert confirmed Saturday that acting assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Susan Thornton will be leaving the department.

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“We are grateful for her service of over two and a half decades to the Department of State, including numerous challenging assignments around the world,” Nauert said in a statement. “

Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson pushed for Thornton to lead the state’s East Asia bureau during his tenure, but then White House chief strategist Steve Bannon tried to block her advancement. Bannon claimed she was too soft on China, but her nomination moved forward after he was ousted from the White House. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) also said he did not want her to be confirmed. Thornton did receive a confirmation hearing, but never a vote.

The news of Thornton’s retirement could be a blow to morale as Foggy Bottom continues to lose seasoned diplomats.

Nahal Toosi contributed to this report.