Christie demands legislators return

Gov. Christie signs the 2013 budget in his office. Christie took a veto pen to the budget first, cutting $361 million from the plan Democrats sent him. He's now called lawmakers back for a special legislative session.
Gov. Christie signs the 2013 budget in his office. Christie took a veto pen to the budget first, cutting $361 million from the plan Democrats sent him. He's now called lawmakers back for a special legislative session. (TIM LARSEN / New Jersey Governor's Office)

Calling them back from vacation to special session Monday, the governor aims to get his tax cut his way.

Posted: July 02, 2012

TRENTON - Demanding that Democrats deliver his version of a tax cut, Gov. Christie invoked his constitutional powers Saturday to call lawmakers back from vacation into a special legislative session.

The Republican governor notified Democratic legislative leaders with just 48 hours' notice, as legally mandated, and not a minute more. He will address a combined Assembly and Senate at 11 a.m. Monday and then leave the Statehouse chambers with the hope the bodies will debate his tax-cut recommendations.

The move comes a day after Christie canceled hundreds of millions of dollars in Democrats' spending and set much of it aside for a future tax cut. Christie and Democrats had come to an agreement on a tax cut in May, but it fell apart over Democratic concerns that state revenue in a still-struggling economy couldn't support it.

"Lowering the tax burden imposed on every New Jersey resident is a matter of unique and critical public interest that demands our immediate and full attention," Christie wrote in his letter before going on to quote from the Declaration of Independence.

Democrats immediately dismissed as theater Christie's directive, which requires legislators' attendance for his speech but cannot mandate they vote on anything.

Assemblyman Troy Singleton (D., Burlington) noted that on Friday, Christie vetoed $330 million in energy tax receipts that would have been sent back to municipalities for property tax relief and $50 million that would have been used to increase the earned income tax credit for the working poor.

"The governor chose to veto those tax cuts because they weren't his tax cuts," Singleton said. "That reeks more of politics than policy."

Republicans said they would return ready to work.

"The Democratic leadership in Trenton reneged on their promise to work with us on tax relief for the most highly taxed people in America: New Jersey residents," said Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr. (R., Union).

Democrats interviewed Saturday said they would show up Monday, but they fully expected Christie to lash out with personal attacks peppered with mild curses.

"I would caution parents to keep their children away from the TV sets in the hours from 11 to noon because I suspect it will be rated R for invective and incitement to violence," said Sen. Barbara Buono (D., Middlesex). "He almost becomes pathological when he doesn't get what he wants."

Christie almost got what he wanted. Seven weeks ago, he had his historic tax-cut deal in hand.

A news conference with Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester), a partner on his most significant legislative achievements, was scheduled May 7 to announce that the working poor would get back a tax credit and homeowners making up to $400,000 would get an income tax refund.

But Sweeney suddenly canceled. He had just had a minor medical procedure and needed time to recover.

Sweeney recovered but never rescheduled. He wasn't able to get his restive caucus to go along with the deal, Christie and Sweeney said Friday. A high unemployment rate, poor credit ratings, and low tax collections made Democrats believe that building a tax cut into their budget was bad fiscal policy.

So on Friday, Christie jettisoned the handshake for the hammer: Using his veto power, he trimmed $361 million out of the Democrats' budget and supplemental spending bills - including more than $5 million in legal services for the poor, $21 million for medical care for the elderly, and $15 million for nursing homes. The savings helped to double the surplus to $648 million - plenty of cash, he said, for reducing taxes.

In an interview at the Statehouse after signing the revised $31.7 billion budget, Christie said his one-two punch in the tax-cut fight illustrated the way he governs: He claws and curses at Democrats at town-hall meetings, but he also cajoles and compromises in private.

In this case compromising privately didn't work, so he swiftly cut what he saw as Democrats' irresponsible spending.

But in another instance - the realignment of the state's major universities, which passed the Legislature on Thursday - Christie operated privately without public shaming and shouting.

"I am not monochromatic," he said.

Christie did not unveil what he will tell legislators Monday. He could conditionally veto a Democratic bill to raise taxes on millionaires, rewriting it to transform it into a tax cut for everyone, and then ask legislators to vote on it.

Democratic support seems unlikely, due to the economy.

"I got the governor for the first time in his tenure to agree to a Senate Democrat tax cut," Sweeney said Friday. "We had the framework of the agreement, but the revenues just kept coming in worse and worse. Some of my members said, 'Steve, what if the money isn't there?' "

One of the bargaining chips was restoration of the earned income tax credit for the working poor, a $50 million bill Democrats have pushed for two years. Since the tax-cut deal fell apart, Christie on Friday vetoed restoration of that money.

Still, Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D., Essex) said late Friday that it had been easier working with Christie this year than last, when he cut social programs for the poor, elderly, and infirm.

Indeed, Christie frames himself as a bipartisan leader. He spoke Friday about how he and his administration had worked hundreds of hours with Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D., Essex) on a bill to revamp teacher tenure that passed last week. He did not say whether he will sign it.

And he noted that months ago he pledged to revamp the state's higher-education system by July 1. In the interim he barely answered questions about the proposal - simply guaranteeing that the deal would get done.

"And here we sit, on June 29, and it is done," he said. "You didn't hear me yelling and screaming about that at all, did you? What was I doing? I was working behind the scenes with all the interested parties, forging compromise, cajoling, pushing, begging, pleading, doing everything an effective negotiator has to do to get a win."

For the first time, Christie also spoke about whom he dealt with directly on the deal, including George Norcross III, the powerful chairman of Cooper University Hospital in Camden who was the strongest unelected voice behind the university overhaul. Norcross is a part owner of The Inquirer.

Christie also worked with Norcross' brother, Sen. Donald Norcross (D., Camden), who sponsored the bill, Newark Mayor Cory Booker, and Essex County Executive Joseph N. DiVincenzo Jr., a Democratic power broker.

Bipartisanship seems less likely this week. Christie waited until a day after signing the budget to call for a special session, leaving legislators to think they were on their way to vacation, only to be called back to work.

Democrats reserved $183 million in surplus that would be used for a tax cut as long as the state brings in enough revenue in coming months. Yet they do not have a bill to make that happen, which Christie called disingenuous.

"Promises in this town from the Legislature mean nothing if they're not in writing," Christie said.

Democrats, meanwhile, criticized Christie's choices. Municipalities took a hit in Christie's budget. He took $200 million from towns' affordable-housing trust funds, $5 million in aid for poor cities like Camden, and $261 million from the state's Transportation Trust Fund.

"His priorities are out of whack," said Assemblyman Louis Greenwald (D., Camden), who sponsored a bill increasing the income tax for millionaires.

The bill passed both houses, but Christie hasn't vetoed it just yet. In the meantime, he's using it for ammunition. "They made their choice, and their choice is they prefer to raise taxes instead of cutting taxes," Christie said.

That's half true. The revenue from the millionaire's tax would go to middle-class property tax relief.

Senate Budget Chairman Paul Sarlo (D., Bergen) said that pushing Christie's proposed tax cuts "before we know if we can truly afford them" is "a platform built on national campaign rhetoric rather than fiscal reality."

Buono agreed. "It's all motivated by his insatiable desire to be on the national ticket at the expense of the people of New Jersey."

That accusation comes up a lot. Christie's policies in Trenton, Democrats say, are just a means to propel the governor to national prominence. They do not want to be used as a punching bag at the Republican convention in Tampa, Fla., in August, when Christie could be a vice presidential candidate or keynote speaker.

"We're trying to discuss public policy that's in the interest of struggling people in New Jersey who want money in their pockets, and they're worried about a speech in Tampa I haven't been invited to give," Christie said.

"A lot of the ways some of the prominence I have nationally helps. And in some ways it hurts. But there's nothing I can do about that."

Contact Matt Katz

at 609-217-8355, mkatz@, or follow on Twitter @mattkatz00. Read

his blog, "Christie Chronicles,"

at ChristieChronicles.

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