Democrats Surrender to Christie in N.J. Budget Battle

What looked to be an impending showdown between the Democratic-controlled New Jersey legislature and Republican Gov. Chris Christie over the state budget for fiscal 2011 may be over before it ever began. Democrats in the state assembly publicly conceded this week that Christie’s $29 billion budget would pass largely intact with Democratic support. 

The move comes on the heels of last week’s collision between Christie and State Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Camden). Sweeney delivered two bills reinstating New Jersey’s expired “millionaire’s tax” to the governor’s office in the State House, only to see Christie veto the bills almost as quickly as he received them. Sweeney promised that the Democrats would return with a similar tax increase soon, but reports indicate that there was no stomach among Democrats either to attempt a veto override or pass another version of the tax. 

Rather than confront Christie and his veto pen again, Democrats have decided to allow the budget to go through. However, they are going to try and force Republicans to “own” the proposed cuts to programs for the elderly and the poor by insisting that those bills be initiated and sponsored by the minority. Most Democrats will then vote against the bills, supplying only the eight votes in the Assembly and four in the Senate needed for the measures to pass each house.

The chairman of the Assembly Budget Committee, Assemblyman Lou Greenwald (D), explained that the Democrats’ strategy is designed to pin responsibility on Republicans in the legislature for Christie’s proposed cuts. “The Republican Party is going to own this budget,” he said. “We will get them the necessary votes to pass it, but they will own it.”

Senate Budget Committee Chairman Paul Sarlo (D) similarly challenged Republicans to stand up for Christie’s budget. Referring to the Democrats’ claim that Christie’s reductions in state aid to municipalities and a one-year elimination of property tax rebates contained in the budget will cause property taxes to go up. “Show us some sponsors,” he said. “Show us some people willing to stand up for these tax increases.”

If Democrats are trying to put them on defensive, however, New Jersey Republicans are not taking the bait. Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean (R) told HUMAN EVENTS last week that his caucus would be glad to sponsor any bills necessary to implement Gov. Christie’s budget. “If the Democratic majority is either incapable or unwilling to sponsor the bills, we certainly will do so,” Kean said. 

Kean scoffed at Assemblyman Greenwald’s suggestion that Republicans would “own” the budget cuts, turning the charge back on the majority, and aligning his caucus squarely on the governor’s side. 

“Democrats in the Legislature have continued to practice the politics of the status quo by insisting on tax increases rather than spending reductions,” Kean said. “Democrats continue to focus on gimmicks and unsustainable one-shots (like the millionaire’s tax) even as Chris Christie is focusing on real solutions for the affordability crisis facing the citizens of our state. The Democrats’ record of 115 tax increases on every thing from income to sales to phones to tires to home energy over the past eight years is a clear contrast to Governor Christie’s efforts thus far.” 

Christie’s budget cutting ways got an unexpected boost from the courts this week, as a New Jersey appeals panel decided that the governor acted within his authority in rescinding planned school aid in February. The court ruled that the governor’s order left school districts with options from relying on other revenue to cutting programs.

“A school district may have sufficient resources without transferring excess surplus to support its current operating budget,” the court ruled. “If not…the district may review its budget for potential efficiencies.”

New Jersey Democrats have been frustrated at nearly every turn by Christie’s forthright and frank talk about New Jersey’s budget problems. With the state facing an $11 billion shortfall in fiscal 2011 and unemployment in the state at 9.8%, traditional Democratic arguments like increasing taxes on the wealthy are not having the same impact as in prior budget battles.

Republicans have tied their fate squarely to Christie’s, who often states that he was not elected to worry about getting reelected, but to fix the problems in state government. Kean said that Senate Republicans have adopted a similar attitude. Asked if Republicans were comfortable facing the voters next year after sponsoring the necessary implementing legislation, Kean said, “I’m not worried one bit.”