Fights loom for Christie, N.J. Dems

Gov. Christie held a town hall meeting in Haddonfield's Central Middle School on June 12. He often uses these gatherings to assail Democrats.
Gov. Christie held a town hall meeting in Haddonfield's Central Middle School on June 12. He often uses these gatherings to assail Democrats. (TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer)
Posted: June 24, 2012

TRENTON - On a day so busy that the Statehouse cafeteria stayed open an extra three hours for hungry lobbyists who were monitoring dozens of bills, Democrats scampered in and out of meetings to try to put together a $31.7 billion budget to send to Gov. Christie.

Turns out, they also needed to put out a fire that began Thursday and lasted well into Friday afternoon.

Assemblyman Joseph Cryan (D., Union) - who was ousted last year from the Assembly's No. 2 post by Camden County Democrat Louis Greenwald - corralled a group of nine maverick Democrats.

Quickly dubbed the Cryan Nine, the group threatened to vote against the Democratic budget, potentially derailing it. Their conditions: Postpone a separate vote to reshuffle the state's universities - a plan pushed and prioritized by Christie and South Jersey Democrats, including Greenwald. Otherwise, they would block the budget.

Meanwhile, throughout Thursday - as though he were already down the Shore for the summer - the Republican governor took to Twitter to rank his top 10 Bruce Springsteen songs.

The dichotomy illustrated Christie's role in Statehouse politics and policy: He sets the conversation and dictates the agenda - but is more than willing to stay out of the fray and let Democrats fight among themselves.

Christie proposes a budget in February and then lets the Democrats who control the Legislature hold hearings all spring and make changes. As the inhabitant of one of the most powerful governor chairs in the country, he then can line-item veto any spending he doesn't like.

The backdrop to budget negotiations is that Christie enjoys the kind of celebrity that last week put him both on the cover of Newsweek and in a largely favorable article in the Atlantic, in which a reporter accompanied him to a Springsteen show.

Indeed, Christie's fame is so significant that much of the debate over this year's budget has been colored by a national speech nine weeks from now that he hasn't even been selected to deliver.

Christie wants a 10 percent across-the-board income tax cut as part of the budget, but Democrats are reluctant to hand him a victory that he could use to build his GOP bona fides during a hypothetical speech at the Republican convention in August. (Christie hasn't been chosen as a keynote speaker, let alone as the vice presidential candidate, but the concern is nonetheless oft-mentioned.)

In May, Christie told Republicans in Wisconsin he was doing the unthinkable: getting Democratic legislative leaders to agree to a tax cut. Actually delivering on that would certainly help his immediate political prospects at home and long-term political future nationally.

But poor economic signs during the last couple of months indicated that New Jersey revenue wasn't as high as Christie had envisioned. Democrats said Christie couldn't afford a tax cut of the magnitude he proposed.

Still, with Christie's popularity and his success at beating up Democrats in town hall meetings and news conferences, Democrats felt they had to give him something. Plus, he vowed to reject any budget that didn't include a tax cut - a threat that could potentially shut down state government.

So the Democratic budget, which passed legislative committees last week and is scheduled to be voted on Monday by both the Assembly and Senate, sets aside $183 million for an income tax credit based on how much a taxpayer pays in property taxes.

The credit wouldn't go into effect until January and would be triggered only if the state reached Christie's ambitious revenue projections. Democrats offered additional tax cuts, too, such as a $50 million increase in the earned-income tax credit for the working poor.

The Democratic budget actually came in slightly lower than Christie's. But some Democrats weren't too supportive of their own measure, citing the hundreds of millions of dollars in borrowing and the reliance on one-time revenue sources.

"To suggest that this budget is fiscally prudent is something that some of us have difficulty saying," said Assemblyman Gary Schaer (D., Passaic).

After the Legislature adjourned Thursday and after Christie's top songs had been tweeted, the governor reacted with hostility to the Democrats' budget plan. He dubbed legislators "Corzine Democrats" - in reference to his unpopular predecessor - and Republican legislators Friday repeatedly parroted the phrase.

At a town hall meeting Friday afternoon, Christie targeted Democrats' approval Thursday and Friday of an increase on a tax on millionaires - which Christie has vetoed twice before and will likely do again. The tax would be designated for middle-class and senior citizen property-tax rebates.

Democrats issued no statements in response. They had more immediate concerns - such as the Cryan Nine.

By Friday afternoon, the coalition had crumbled, with two members dropping out. Those were the remaining votes the Democratic leadership needed to pass its budget.

In an interview before the coalition broke apart, Cryan said he expected leaders from the Democratic establishment to try to bring his colleagues back into the fold.

And that's exactly what happened. The Star-Ledger reported it didn't take much, just the threat of the cancellation of a $10 million bridge repair project in their district in Bergen County.

For their part, the two former Cryan Nine Democrats released a statement saying they flipped their position because of a change in the higher education bill, not transactional politics. Specifically, they cited a four-day-old amendment that postpones the higher education plan until 2013.

As for Cryan, he said his decision to go rogue had nothing to do with the politics behind his ouster as Assembly majority leader last year. He just thinks legislators need to slow down.

"This is about principle," he said.

"To me, the leverage is in the vote [on the budget]. The budget is the most important vote you make every year as a legislator. And this [higher education] vote rises to that level of importance."

On Monday, the Assembly budget committee will vote on the higher education bill - which has Rutgers taking over most of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey while Rutgers-Camden joins with Rowan University. The full Senate also is expected to take up the measure.

Also Monday, Democrats will try to send Christie their budget. The governor is facing both his self-imposed July 1 deadline for the higher education plan and a July 1 constitutional deadline for a balanced budget.

Christie can sign their budget, line-item certain items (such as the millions in social programs for the poor and needy that Democrats added), veto it outright. Or he may issue a "conditional veto," which would require Democrats to approve his changes or face a government shutdown, a risky political move for all involved.

But there's another factor at play: Spouses.

Every year at this time, as the budget fight intensifies, students finish school. July Fourth is around the corner. And legislators say those holding off from moving the budget get calls from family down the Shore: "Where are you?"

And that's when hundreds of bills, like the biggest reorganization of universities in a half-century, get moved through rapidly.

"So much waits till the end to get done," said Assemblyman Troy Singleton (D., Burlington), a rookie Budget Committee member.

Republican Sen. Jennifer Beck, in her first year on the Budget Committee, said: "The process is interesting, to say the least."

As for that Springsteen list, Christie's No. 1 is the iconic "Thunder Road."

He posted that on Twitter just as Democrats tried to move their chess pieces against a guy they're convinced cares mostly about leaving Trenton to become president or vice president.

"It's a town full of losers," Springsteen sings. "And I'm pulling out of here to win."


Contact Matt Katz at 609-217-8355, mkatz@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @mattkatz00. Read his blog, "Christie Chronicles," at www.philly.com/ChristieChronicles.

|
|
|
|
|