N.J. Democrats in Disarray as Christie Slashes Budget

Democrats in control of the New Jersey legislature defied Gov. Chris Christie and passed a $30.6 billion budget late last week in party-line votes and with little debate.  The spending plan contained some $300 million more than state Treasurer Andrew Sidamon-Eristoff had publicly certified as available to the state in fiscal year 2012.  Democrats got to the higher budget number by relying on revenue estimates from the Office of Legislative Services—the state-level equivalent of the Congressional Budget Office—a tactic the treasurer called “fabricated” and “unconstitutional.”

It was supposed to be a political trap.  The Democrats’ budget was loaded up with extra spending for suburban school districts, big city police departments and Medicaid programs that the governor had earlier cut, partially offset by a “millionaire’s tax” that Christie vetoed last year.  Published reports indicate that Democrats put the extra spending in the bill as bait for Christie’s veto pen, planning to use his rejection of politically sensitive funding against him and legislative Republicans who would uphold his vetoes in the upcoming November legislative elections.

Last Thursday, Christie exercised his line-item veto on the Democrats’ budget, cutting nearly $1 billion off the Democrats’ spending plan.  In cutting more than three times the extra spending Democrats had approved, Christie managed to steer clear of the political minefield.  According to the governor’s office, his $29.7 billion budget increases aid to education by $850 million over last year, restoring all education funding that was cut to balance last year’s $11 billion budget shortfall.  The governor also said that his budget increases funding to hospitals and prescription drug programs for seniors, while providing $180 million in target tax incentives for small businesses and leaving a $640 million surplus, all without raising taxes.

In his veto message, Christie said Democrats were more interested in playing political games than producing a balanced budget.

“The Democratic legislature decided it was time to … revert to more of the same unrealistic, fantasy budgeting that has plagued Trenton for years and is the reason New Jersey got into fiscal trouble in the first place.  They have decided to deceive the citizens of this state with a budget that makes them look like Santa Claus in an election year.  How shocking—politicians deceiving and pandering to voters to get reelected.  I was sent here to end this politics as usual.  Their unconstitutional budget—and let me repeat, unconstitutional budget—if signed in its current form, would step on the hard-won progress made over the last year and a half to right New Jersey’s fiscal course over the long term and instead embraces Trenton’s previous addiction to spending,” Christie said.

Democrats reacted angrily.  Senate President Steve Sweeney, who the week prior had stood next to Christie to announce a bipartisan reform of public employee pensions and benefits, called him, “a rotten bastard” and “a bully and a punk.”  “I wanted to punch him in his head,” Sweeney fumed.

Now, one prominent Democrat has publicly exposed a rift among Democrats over the budget strategy.  State Sen. Raymond Lesniak told the Newark Star-Ledger that Democrats had “miscalculated” by not negotiating with Christie on spending before passing their budget.  Lesniak also said that Democrats should have made the pension and benefit reform bill part of the overall state budget, in order to better position themselves to win concessions from the governor.

“There were others who thought that we could get stuff by negotiating with the governor.  I felt that our ability to do what we believe is right is not just to get stuff for our districts,” Lesniak said.  “I think we’re all stunned that he would be so cruel and mean-spirited.”

Republicans reject any criticism of the governor, calling it political theater.  Assemblyman Declan O’Scanlon said Democrats were not prepared for the magnitude of Christie’s vetoes, and are simply trying to resurrect their original strategy of painting him and Republicans in the harshest possible light.  “The budget was designed to be political from the start.  This budget was designed for the sound bites that you’re hearing now, that the governor is a cruel and insensitive human being,” O’Scanlon said.

Christie is not up for reelection until 2013, but he figures to be an outsized factor in the November legislative elections.  Democrats are eager to portray minority Republicans as the governor’s lapdogs in hopes of holding on to control of the state house.  Republicans will make the argument that Democrats are too beholden to special interests to be effective partners for reform.  Christie came into office promising to shake up the old ways of doing business in Trenton.  Democrats in the legislature are still trying to figure out how to stop him.