Fine Print: The Line-Item Veto Edition

The governor racks up more than 100 line-item vetoes, sometimes by just cutting a few key words

What it is: Gov. Chris Christie last week announced that he would take his veto pen to more than 100 specific items in the Democratic-controlled legislature’s spending plan, ending up with a $29.7 billion budget signed by the June 30 deadline. The formal action came in the form of a 30-page document laying out each veto, line by line.

What it means: Much attention has been given to sweeping cuts that sliced the bulk of the $900 million from the budget, but sometimes it came down to a single word or phrase that reversed the legislature’s intent in one program or another. In the end, Christie’s veto message provides a lesson in the power — and high stakes – in words, and what a little editing can do.

Seven words that pack a punch: “This item is deleted in its entirety.” It was among the most-used lines in the governor’s handiwork, and the results ranged from cutting a $537,000 grant to the Wynona M. Lipman Child Advocacy Center to the $50 million that had been proposed for public-safety grants to high-crime cities.

Double-parentheses: The line-item veto can only take out words, not add them, and Christie’s lawyers proved deft at finding key words to change the meaning of a sentence entirely. One example was the fine-tooth editing of a provision that would have restricted the state from putting restrictions on certain Medicaid services. (The words Christie cut are in double parentheses.) The Christie revision reads: the state “shall ((not)) include ((any)) restrictions,” essentially reversing the meaning so the state’s waiver “shall include restrictions.”

Not over yet: The legislature can still override the vetoes one at a time, and Democratic leaders have threatened to do so. They are well aware that they do not have the votes in their party alone for the necessary two-thirds majority, but the aim is to force Republican legislators up for reelection this fall to cast specific votes against specific programs. The Senate is back in session tomorrow to formally receive the veto message, and Democratic staff said it will then review its options with the possibility that some compromises can be reached.

Not exactly collegial: Even after Christie’s agreement with key Democrats to reform pension and health benefits earlier last week, the prospects of a bipartisan budget agreement appears all but shot after Christie’s sweeping cuts. It’s gotten ugly enough that Senate president Stephen Sweeney unleashed a tirade of insults at Christie in a Star-Ledger column this weekend, calling him “vindictive,” “mean-spirited” and even a “rotten prick.” Christie responded yesterday with a terse statement that Sweeney’s language was “inappropriate and disrespectful” but he still hoped to work with the Democrats. Sweeney conceded some words may have been a little strong, but he wasn’t backing down from the sentiment.

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