At stake are not simply political points, but matters of importance to everyone in New Jersey. How much aid Trenton will send to school districts, the level of public health care and various social services that low-income and disabled people receive, and the amount of property-tax relief residents receive are all in play.
Assembly Majority Leader Joseph Cryan (D., Union) said that the governor had been given a chance in his first year, and that now it was time for Democrats to present an alternative.
"I think this will be a political [budget process], far more than last year," he said. "Budgets represent values, and we need to make sure that the Democratic values are being represented."
Cryan said his party would fight back harder against Christie, "who had his chance, in my view setting New Jersey back a couple of decades. We're not going backward again."
Christie wants to set the troubled state on a fiscally sound course, even if it means more pain now. Democratic legislators have talked far less about making sweeping changes to the way government operates. They want to see the social safety net preserved and are hesitant to make drastic cuts in public services.
Battle lines already are being drawn.
Democrats want to keep the level of state aid to schools and towns flat, after Christie cut $1.2 billion last year. But the state Supreme Court is weighing the constitutionality of the school-aid reductions and could decide that the state needs to spend more on school funding, already the biggest portion of the budget.
Though the governor has signaled he'll look to trim Medicaid, a $4.6 billion chunk of the budget, Democrats say they will oppose any health-care cuts.
Democrats are also sure to continue pushing back against Christie's elimination last year of $7.4 million in women's health funds that would have paid for low-cost birth control and cancer screenings for low-income people and that is likely to go unfunded in the next budget, too.
On Friday, Christie vetoed 14 bills in the Democrats' economic-recovery package, most of them business-tax breaks, some of which passed with universal support from GOP legislators.
He said he may support some of them in his budget. But Democrats quickly sought to portray Christie as turning his back on the unemployed.
And though Christie has touted his cost-cutting for months, his critics in the Legislature have accused him of increasing property taxes by shifting the burden of the state's budget problems onto towns and schools.
"I think, obviously, that's not a solution, that's a shift in responsibility, and we're going to be very vigilant to point out those circumstances where the governor claims to solve the problem but only pushes the problem off on someone else," said Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D., Middlesex), chairman of the New Jersey Democratic State Committee.
But Democrats have struggled to present a real alternative, given the state's dire fiscal problems. The extension of the so-called millionaire's tax they unsuccessfully pushed in 2010, which could be revived this year, would not have brought in enough to restore funding for much of what they wanted.
Voters could give Republicans control of the Legislature in November if they decide they like Christie's direction, enabling the governor to accomplish his agenda more easily. That would also depend on how legislative districts are redrawn this year.
For now, Democrats are somewhat at the mercy of Christie because he can veto budget items and they do not have enough votes for an override.
Republicans are entering the budget season more united than the majority party, which faces dueling pressures to give in to a governor who has considerable popular support while also wanting to stand up for some of its core positions.
One looming complication is that some proposals to be debated are unpopular with labor unions, which many Democrats depend on for get-out-the-vote operations and campaign contributions. Lawmakers, for example, will be talking about having government workers contribute more for their health and pension benefits.
And some legislators are unhappy with the leadership of Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester), a sponsor of the pension and health-benefit proposals who has shown a willingness to work with the governor on many issues.
To say there is grumbling among the party ranks about Sweeney is putting it kindly, according to one Democratic legislator.
Sweeney does share other Democrats' frustrations that Christie is punching holes in the social safety net, and he said he would be concerned about the budget's effect on middle-income people.
But leaders have to lead, Sweeney said, referring to his proposals on public benefits.
"They can't promise people what they want to hear all the time. . . . Do I know that some of my members don't like talking about this stuff? Sure, I do. It's not easy when you're talking about change."
He added: "We need to fix the state. There's no more 'We'll get to it next year, we'll get to it tomorrow, we'll get to it next week.' We need to do it now."
Contact staff writer Maya Rao at 609-989-8990 or email@example.com.