By Art Gallagher
Governor Chris Christie dropped his bombshell budget on the Trenton Democrats last week and then took off on a two week vacation with his family, leaving a media vacuum for Senate President Steve Sweeney and the Democrats in the legislature to try to fill.
Sweeney got some national attention by calling Christie a “rotten prick” and a “bastard” who hurts people and now the Senate is scheduled to hold votes to over ride Christie’s budget next week. The Assembly is scheduling hearings on the impact of Christie’s cuts but hasn’t scheduled any override votes. It is all political theater. The budget that the Democrats submitted to Christie was political theater. They planned on giving Christie a budget he would cut so that they could spend the summer and fall using his cuts against the Republicans in the legislative election campaigns.
Christie is a “bastard” because he outwitted the Democrats, again. By trying to box Christie in, forcing him to make cuts to popular programs they could use against him in the coming election, the Democrats unwittingly gave Christie the leverage he needs to accelerate his reform agenda.
Christie cut $139 million of $149 million from the urban “transitional aid” program. New Jersey’s cities, Asbury Park, Camden, Trenton, Newark, et al, can not operate without that money. The cities can’t legally lay employees off fast enough due to civil service rules, which takes spending cuts off the table. Asbury Park would have to raise their property taxes by 101% to make up the the funds that Christie cut. That would be fun to watch, but I don’t think they could collect those taxes. If they did, they’d prove that the transitional aid wasn’t necessary.
While Christie was gutting the urban budgets and other programs dear to the Democrats, he also added $300 million to the surplus.
The Democrats will keep making noise that nobody hears until Christie gets back from vacation. Then they will start negotiating. But now Christie has the leverage because the Democrats gave it to him while thinking they had in a political poor position. Christie wants education reform, especially tenure reform. He wants the rest of his tool kit passed, especially civil service reform. He couldn’t get that from the legislature over the last year. Now he has what they need, what they must have.
The cities will get the transitional aid money. Christie will get his reforms passed before Labor Day.
Given the new legislative map, it is unlikely that the GOP will make significant gains in the legislature this coming election. However, it looks to me like Christie has positioned himself to extract reforms from the Democrats that are more landmark than the pension and benefit reforms recently passed. Christie and the GOP legislative team are positioned to enter September with major triumphs.