N.J. Democrats' budget much like Christie's

Gov. Christie's poll numbers may be making Democrats hesistant to fight.
Gov. Christie's poll numbers may be making Democrats hesistant to fight. (ALEX WONG / Getty Images)
Posted: June 24, 2013

TRENTON - There was a time in the not-too-distant past when getting a state budget through the New Jersey Legislature and signed by the governor had all the drama of Wagner's Ring cycle operas.

And seemed to take as long.

Certainty was banished from the stage. Small crowds of lawmakers and staff rushed from the floors of the Senate and Assembly to the governor's office and then to their own hideaways, to map proposals and counterproposals.

Deals were cut late into the night and often the budget wasn't adopted until the early-morning hours, after which lawmakers and the handful of journalists who managed to stay awake stumbled home.

Not anymore.

After weeks of quiet negotiation with the governor's office, Democrats in the Legislature on Thursday rolled out a $32.9 billion budget that to a great degree tracks with the proposal Gov. Christie, a Republican, unveiled in late February. It is a spare budget that grows by just over 2 percent and adheres to conservative principles, at least as far as state spending is concerned.

Both houses of the Legislature are expected to adopt the budget Monday, one week before the state constitution's June 30 deadline for passage.

Much of the increase is accounted for by a dramatic jump in Medicaid funding from the federal government to pay for the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, President Obama's program to expand health coverage to people who do not have health insurance.

Christie has been a vocal opponent of the health-care law but agreed to expand Medicaid enrollment in New Jersey, one of its key features, because the state's overall share of Medicaid spending will go down.

Why the bonhomie?

Part of it is Christie's robust popularity. A Quinnipiac University poll released June 10 gave Christie a near 70 percent favorability rating in his race against State Sen. Barbara Buono (D., Middlesex). Christie also has a close relationship with Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester), who on some issues shares Christie's conservative leanings. But surely much of it this year is simply this: The Legislature is up for reelection, and evidently few lawmakers relish the thought of explaining to the voters why they picked a fight with a popular governor.

"I think most Democratic legislators recognize that with their own election coming up, there is little to be gained in having a knock-down, drag-out fight over money with one of the most popular governors in the country," said Brigid Harrison, a political science professor at Montclair State University.

Christie also has been clever in cultivating relationships with Democratic politicians, so much so that some have endorsed his reelection.

"This is very unique," said Joseph Marbach, a professor of political science at La Salle University, of the budget d├ętente.

Christie's close working relationship with Sweeney, and the idea that they share conservative leanings on budget matters, has been central, Marbach said.

Sweeney and the governor "have seen eye to eye on a lot," Marbach said.

That's not to say that there was an absence of dissenting voices Thursday when the Assembly and Senate budget committees voted to release the budget. Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D., Bergen) voted against the bill, saying that it shortchanged an important women's health program and took no steps to reduce homeowners' property-tax burden.

A fellow member of the committee, Sen. Nellie Pou (D., Passaic), wondered aloud how it was that the state could not fund needed social programs but had the money to pay for a special election to replace the late Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg.

Christie scheduled the special election for Oct. 16, at a cost of up to $24 million, less than three weeks before the regularly scheduled general election Nov. 5. Democrats have argued that holding three elections within a matter of months was a waste of taxpayer money.

But those voices so far have failed to gain much attention.

The big dispute earlier this year was over Christie's revenue projections, which Democratic lawmakers and the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services said were overstated by about $700 million.

By the time the budget was rolled out Thursday, the governor's projections remained and Democratic objections were muted. Democratic aides privately acknowledged that even if the gap between revenues reached $1 billion, about 2 percent of overall spending, it could be managed.

The only public rejoinder offered by Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee Chairman Paul Sarlo (D., Bergen) was that it was the administration's job to certify revenue. If the money falls short, it will have to find a way to make up the difference.


Contact Chris Mondics

at 215-854-5957 or cmondics@phillynews.com.

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