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Found in Translation: Christie's Other Budget Address

Reading between the lines of a speech the governor gave last week offers more than a clue as to what he will say on Tuesday.

If you want to know what will be in Governor Chris Christie’s budget speech Tuesday, it may be a good idea to just read between the lines – the lines of the address he gave to the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., last Wednesday.

"It’s time to do the big things, the really big things," Christie told a roomful of conservatives who were hoping they were listening to the next president. "For us in New Jersey, it’s restoring and maintaining fiscal sanity. It’s getting our pension and health benefits under control, reformed and have the cost lowered. And it’s reforming an education system that costs too much and produces too little."

Translation: Just because tax revenue is up $500 million through December, don’t expect me to loosen the purse strings. Don’t expect me to kick in the $500 million or so we’re supposed to provide to the pension system until the Democratic legislature passes the pension reform package I proposed in September. Don’t expect me to restore the more than $1 billion I cut in aid to K-12 education last year. And don’t even bother to bring up municipal aid.

How about covering the $1.4 billion gap in the Medicaid program created when President Obama’s stimulus money ran out?

"We have to fix Medicaid because it’s not only bankrupting the federal government, it’s bankrupting the state governments."

Translation: Weren't you were paying attention in January, when I joined 26 other Republican governors in asking the feds for permission to spend less on Medicaid?

What are you going to put into the budget for employee salaries?

"For God’s sake, even Jerry Brown in California [is] talking about reducing salaries of state workers 8 to 10 percent." And how about the Wisconsin governor I campaigned for calling for an end to collective bargaining for public employees?

How about employee health benefits?

"To save your healthcare for the rest of your life … yeah, you’re going to have to take a little bit less.”

Translation: Do I cut the employee health benefits budget by the full 30 percent cost-share I could impose in collective bargaining, or do I just cut it by the phased-in amount Senate President Stephen Sweeney wants to do through legislation? Easy answer. Sweeney doesn’t go far enough.

If Democrats once again vote to restore the income tax surcharge on millionaires,which last week’s Quinnipiac Poll shows most Democrats and independents favor?

"That’s fine. I will veto it."

And if Democrats force a government shutdown?

As I said said last year, "If you close down the government, I’m getting into those black SUVs with the troopers and going to the governor’s residence. I’m going to go upstairs, open a beer. I’m going to order a pizza. I’m going to watch the Mets. And when you decide to reopen the government, give me a call and I’ll come back."

Clearly, Christie managed to hit all the big things, all the really big things, at the American Enterprise Institute -- apparently without referring to a prepared text. Maybe he should turn off the teleprompters in the Assembly Chamber Tuesday.

The budget speech -- and this year’s budget itself -- will be easier for Christie than last year’s budget.

While he again couldn’t resist taking credit at the institute for filling an "$11 billion budget deficit on a $29 billion budget -- the highest budget deficit by percentage of any state in America," Christie knows full well that the $10 billion and $11 billion deficit figures projected each year by the non-partisan Office of Legislative Services don’t really matter.

A New Way

As Christie himself said later in his speech, "We have a whole new way of budgeting in New Jersey. We don’t assume every program will be funded anymore. We don’t assume a certain increase in every budget."

Last year’s budget required a real cut of about $3 billion. This year will be much easier, especially if current-year revenues keep running ahead of projections -- easy enough for Christie to throw in a business tax cut or two just a few days after vetoing a package of Democratic-sponsored business tax cuts. Tax cuts, Christie said, should be considered as part of the overall budget process -- meaning tax cuts should come from him.

Christie’s biggest problem, the need to find $800 million to $1.6 billion to replenish the Transportation Trust Fund -- both to keep up the state’s roads, bridges and rail system and to keep up the governor’s relatively cozy relationship with the building trades unions -- disappeared when Christie cancelled the Access to the Region's Core (ARC) rail passenger tunnel to New York and pumped the money into state projects.

If Christie is willing to hold school aid and municipal aid and property tax relief flat -- and he could very well argue that the state cannot afford to do otherwise -- his biggest hole is a $1.4 billion Medicaid gap, and advocates for the poor and elderly served by the program are already bracing for at least some level of cuts. So is everyone else.

Adrienne Eaton, President of Rutgers University’s faculty union, could have been speaking for every constituency in the state when she said, "At this point, we pray for flat funding or at least hope for lesser cuts than the rest."

Democrats don’t know whether to fight or kowtow to the new champion of the bully pulpit or the new bully of the YouTube pulpit. Either way, Christie has been remarkably effective and has Democrats on their heels -- when they’re not actively in his corner touring charter schools, sharing the stage with Oprah or introducing him to the Hudson County faithful.

Politically, this is a critical year with Democratic control of both houses of the legislature on the line in November in newly redrawn districts that will reflect population growth in Republicans areas of the state, and the budget, taxes and public employee salaries and benefits looming as the key campaign issues. Last June, Democratic legislative leaders gave Christie the budget he wanted, and he became a national Republican star. Will this year follow the same script?

More of the Same

"It looks like more of the same," one veteran Democratic observer said. "Christie proposes a hard budget, Democrats nip around the edges, then they give him just enough votes to pass the budget with every Republican in the Assembly and Senate voting for it, so they can say it’s a Republican budget and attack in the fall when they’re all up for reelection."

"Maybe they pass the millionaire’s tax again," he continued, "and make him veto it, but that’s what Christie wants. And they’re not going to give him a government shutdown to run against. Is that enough for Democrats to hold onto the majority in November? I don’t know."

The Democrats don’t seem to have a coherent strategy. At this point, the battle over the budget, pensions and employee benefits is being fought entirely on Christie’s turf. The question is not whether there will be a cut, but how much.

Sweeney’s plan to phase in state employee health benefit contributions on a sliding scale over a period of years, with workers eventually paying 12 percent to 30 percent of the cost based on their salary, is an effort to straddle the middle. It's one that he hopes will appeal to average voters who feel that state worker pay and benefits are too high, as well as to state workers he hopes will realize that his plan would be less objectionable than Christie's.

Meanwhile, Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver, a Democrat from urban Essex County, is threatening to fight Christie tooth-and-nail over Medicaid cuts, but then again, Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo, arguably the most powerful Democrat in her county, has been openly on the same page with Christie on a slew of issues.

President Christie?

The issue that is spoken about most often by Democrats behind closed doors -- or at least by Democrats not close to Christie -- is how what they do in this year’s budget will affect the juggernaut that is building behind a Christie-for-President run in 2012.

Get New Jersey Democratic officials, labor leaders and progressive activists behind closed doors, and they will tell you that their strategy on the budget will have a lot to do with whether Christie continues to be seen as a conservative force of nature working his will on this erstwhile blue state -- and whether Democrats can hang on to their tenuous majority in both houses of the legislature.

"Obama needs Democrats in New Jersey to either bloody Christie on the budget or make a political statement by holding onto the legislature," said one New Jersey Democrat closely attuned to national politics. "Because if he wins again on the budget and wins both houses of the legislature, there will be a parade of national Republicans beating down the doors of the State House to push him to take on Obama" He added, "Republicans just aren’t excited about any of their candidates. But they’re excited about Christie. If we don’t stop him here, we might not stop him."

Those who follow him the most closely have little doubt that this time next year Christie could be campaigning in New Hampshire and Iowa and Michigan and Wisconsin not for other Republicans, but for himself.

Sweeney told the Star-Ledger editorial board last week he puts the odds at better than 50-50 that Christie will run for president in 2012, and that Christie would base the decision on whether he thought he could beat Obama.

If you don’t think Sweeney knows what he’s talking about, just read what the national political reporters and the conservative blogosphere write about Christie’s budget speech tomorrow. But then again, you don’t have to. You already read it last Wednesday, right?

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