Gov. Christie Seeks Budget Reform

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie won a major victory over Democrats in the legislature recently, as the governor and leaders of the state Senate and Assembly agreed to a $29.4 billion budget plan that enacts Christie’s first spending plan with nothing more than minor changes. The budget closes an $11 billion deficit without raising taxes.

In a press release announcing the deal, Christie was magnanimous toward Democrats, whom he praised for working with Republicans to beat the June 30 deadline to pass a budget. 

“This budget stays true to the principles I originally outlined, keeping spending within our means and restoring fiscal order without raising taxes,” Christie said. “This has been an arduous process that has required many difficult decisions, but I want to extend a hand of gratitude to leaders on both sides of the political aisle in Trenton for coming together in the best interest of our state in order to get the job done.”

But the good will was short lived as Christie immediately turned his attention to more lasting budget and spending reform in Trenton, pushing for passage of his signature Cap2.5 plan.

Cap2.5 is a constitutional amendment that would permanently limit spending and property tax increases at the local level to an annual 2.5% increase. Under the plan, voter approval would be required for a municipality to exceed the cap in any year and for almost any reason.

Christie says that Cap2.5 is a necessary tool to help put New Jersey taxpayers back in control of runaway property tax increases and ballooning budgets across the state. 

“For far too long, New Jerseyans have been on the receiving end of higher and higher taxes imposed by state and local governments, which have been unable or unwilling to curb costs,” Christie said in introducing the proposal in May. “With this package of bills, we are now taking action to bring to an end the current property tax crisis and giving people real relief. I am committed to working with the legislature so we can act and get this done to finally fulfill a long overdue obligation to the people of New Jersey to bring property taxes under control.”

But Democrats are resisting Christie’s push, characterizing it as heavy-handed and risky. State Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Camden) has introduced his own 2.9% cap, which would not require a constitutional amendment, and would not mandate voter approval for local governments to exceed the limit.

Sweeney said that the governor’s plan is too inflexible. “A hard cap would just destroy local governments and make it impossible to provide public safety, which then the state will be forced to fund," Sweeney said. “This is a very attainable goal without going to the constitution, where if we make a mistake, we can never correct the problem.”

Christie has been barnstorming the state in support of his plan and the day after the budget deal was announced, he picked up the support of New Jersey’s highest profile Democrat, Newark Mayor Corey Booker. Booker is frequently mentioned as the frontrunner for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination to challenge Christie in 2013, but, for one day, the two would-be political rivals found common ground against Democrats in the State House.

Booker echoed Christie’s call for reigning in New Jersey’s skyrocketing property taxes and praised Christie’s push for the amendment. “The property tax problem is at the center of New Jersey’s affordability crisis and the people of this state are calling for their leaders to join them in pursuing—and finally enacting—a real remedy,” Booker said. “Governor Christie, with his clear focus and determined drive, is putting meaningful and potent property tax relief within reach.”

In endorsing Cap2.5, Booker joined over 200 mayors—representing nearly half of the state’s municipalities—in supporting Christie’s property tax cap. Christie, in turn, called Booker, “a dynamic leader,” and declared he was “proud” to have the support of the mayor of New Jersey’s largest city.    

Booker also called on his fellow Democrats to put party aside and work to enact Christie’s plan for the good of their constituents. “I am proud to join the bipartisan and growing list of state and municipal leaders who are advocating for deep and durable reform. This is a moment for all of us, Republican and Democrat, state and city, executive branch and legislative branch, to listen to the people of our state and get the job done on this critical issue,” he said.

Booker dismissed Sweeney’s plan to enact a legislative rather than constitutional cap, saying that any plan which is not constitutionally guaranteed would be subject to the whims of future legislatures. “Despite best intentions, we have not slain this beast,” Booker said. “The cap must be real, it must be hard, and must present pressure [to hold down spending.]”

Christie’s plan requires the approval of the Democratic-controlled legislature before mid-July in order to appear on the November ballot. So far, Democrats in both houses have refused Republican motions to bring the governor’s plan before the relevant committees. Booker’s support will likely make it much more difficult for Democrats to continue blocking Christie’s proposal. 

In their budget battle with Christie, which ended without much skirmishing, Democrats found discretion to be the better part of valor and allowed the budget to go through largely unchanged. Faced with growing public discontent over taxes and spending, and a governor with a 51% approval rating in the latest Rasmussen Reports survey, Democrats find themselves in a similar position. Christie has shown an ability to get what he wants out of the legislature. With Booker’s support, he is poised to win a second major legislative victory for his agenda.