Budget override battle foreshadows legislative election campaigns

Mark J. Magyar | July 12, 2011 | Budget
Veto override efforts fall short as Democrats and Republicans differ over size of surplus and availability of funds to restore Christie's cuts to social programs

Credit: John O'Boyle/Star Ledger
(Note: Sen. Joseph Kyrillos was originally identified as a Democrat. He is a Republican.) Sen. Joseph Kyrillos (R-Monmouth), left, and Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester)
Yesterday’s Senate session failed to override any of Gov. Chris Christie’s line-item vetoes, but it did offer a preview of the upcoming legislative election campaigns, as Democrats assailed “heartless” budget cuts and Republicans countered that the Democratic budget was based on “fanciful” numbers.

At the core of the ideological contest is a dispute over tax collection and surplus projections that has been raging for almost two months since David Rosen, the budget officer for the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services (OLS), projected that revenues would be $913 million more than originally anticipated, while Andrew Sidamon-Eristoff, Christie’s treasurer, came in with a projected increase of just $511 million. That $402 million difference represents just over 1 percent of the state’s $29.8 billion budget, but it would have been more than enough to restore the $60 million in cuts to mental health, family planning, legal aid, Medicaid and FamilyCare healthcare coverage for the poor, and other social programs that Democrats put up for votes yesterday.

Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) said he thought the Christie administration intentionally underestimated revenues and inflated the state surplus. “I wouldn’t be surprised if the governor comes out in his campaign with plans to cut taxes after he finds out he has a billion-dollar surplus,” Sweeney declared.

He added that when Christie found the state rolling in revenue, fully funding the Earned Income Tax Credit for the working poor would be at the bottom of the governor’s list of priorities.

Class Warfare

Sweeney made it clear that Democrats would be running in November on a class warfare platform that depicts Christie and the GOP as targeting working families and the poor, especially in cities like Newark and Camden, where murder and arson rates have risen in the wake of police budget cuts. In fact, restoration of a $50 million appropriation to hire more police in cities with high crime rates is the centerpiece of today’s second day of Senate override votes.

The Republicans failed to provide the three votes needed to override any of the 15 vetoes considered yesterday. But the Democrats did pick up a lone Republican vote. Sen. Jennifer Beck (R-Monmouth) cast the only GOP vote for any override measure, voting with the Democrats to restore a $7.5 million cut to family planning clinics that was the most hotly debated bill of the day.

Beck also disclosed that Human Services Commissioner Jennifer Velez told her that the state was backing off its plan to sharply lower income eligibility requirements for new Medicaid and FamilyCare enrollees in its Medicaid waiver application to the federal government. Christie administration officials did not seem surprised by her assertion, but did not confirm the accuracy of her statement.

Republican legislative leaders dismissed the Senate override votes as political theater, with Senator Anthony Bucco (R-Morris), the Senate Republican budget officer, insisting that “No one is really being hurt by this budget.”

Senate Minority Leader Thomas Kean Jr. (R-Union), asserted that the main purpose of the Senate override session was to score political points by forcing Republicans to vote against restoring funding for popular programs, such as increased school aid or police staffing. “Every time the Senate president puts the house under call, it’s for something he considers a political vote,” Kean said, referring to the legislative procedure under which lawmakers are not permitted to leave the chamber and abstentions are counted as no votes.

Sweeney was thus able to record Senator Diane Allen, R-Burlington, whose 7th District is perhaps the most competitive held by a GOP senator, as voting no on every override, even though she abstained. Allen said she considered the programs worthy if adequate funding had been available.

Kean said it was Republicans who were acting on principle by refusing to vote to spend money that the state didn’t have.

Budget Call

Richard Bagger, Christie’s chief of staff, and Sidamon-Eristoff, Christie’s treasurer, set up a conference call with reporters to explain that the $640 million surplus listed in the $29.8 billion budget the governor signed on June 30 really includes just $365 million in unallocated revenue.

Sidamon-Eristoff said the appropriations bill passed by the Democratic-controlled legislature underfunded the health benefits for state employees by $165 million because it did not account for the sliding scale and slower phase-in of employee contributions included in the pension and health benefits bill sponsored by Sweeney himself. The Democratic budget also included another $50 million in health benefit savings that do not exist, underfunded debt service by $30 million and failed to include an additional $30 million needed for the senior citizen property tax freeze, including a provision that would raise income eligibility for the program from $70,000 to $80,000.

“The obligation to provide health benefits to employees is a legal obligation,” Bagger stressed. “Debt service is a legal obligation. The senior freeze is a legal obligation.” He added that the governor’s budget veto message made it clear that $275 million out of the $640 million surplus needed to be set aside to fund these programs, which reduced the real surplus to $365 million.

Sweeney refused to allow Republican senators to discuss the surplus issue during the Senate debate, and he made it clear afterwards that he wasn’t buying any of Bagger’s or Sidamon-Eristoff’s argument. “When you start talking about funding for the blind, the poor and the mentally ill, all of a sudden the surplus changes,” Sweeney said, adding that Christie must have been trying to mislead the Wall Street bond rating houses with his original talk about a $640 million surplus.
The real point to Democrats is that Rosen, the budget officer for the OLS, told them prior to introduction of their budget bill in late June that they would be safe in anticipating $800 million in increased revenue — well over the $511 million in extra revenue that Christie and Sidamon-Eristoff certified in the budget the governor signed and a little below the $913 million projected in Rosen’s last official estimate in May.

If Rosen is right, the state has more than enough money to restore some of the most controversial budget cuts made by Christie, Democrats noted.

Planned Parenthood

As expected, the sharpest debate focused on the determined effort by Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) for the second year in a row to put $7.5 million back into the budget to fund family planning clinics that would then be eligible to draw down $67.5 million in federal funds under the 9-to-1 federal-to-state matching formula.

“Funding cuts under this governor have resulted in the closure of six family planning centers in New Jersey, and severe cutbacks in operating hours for those that remain,” Weinberg asserted. “This action by the minority party will only serve to push more centers to financial collapse, resulting in a lack of access to basic healthcare services for thousands of women in this state. Additional cases of cancer will go undetected, sexually transmitted infections will go untreated and, because of an inability to access contraceptives, more unplanned pregnancies will occur.”

Senator Gerald Cardinale (R-Bergen) shot back, “Any time a Planned Parenthood center closes for lack of government funding, I think the people of this state are better off.””He added that “$7.5 million is a lot of money, especially when a lot of it goes to Planned Parenthood, which is a promoter of child prostitution.”

The sharp attacks on Planned Parenthood by Cardinale and Senator Michael Doherty (R-Warren) were countered by Democratic charges that the family planning cuts this year and last year were “ideological” decisions made by Christie, who is being wooed to consider a presidential run in 2012, to cement his anti-abortion credentials with the Republican Right.

Even with Republican Beck breaking ranks, the family planning veto override fell two votes short of the 27 needed for passage, and all of the other 14 override measures failed 24-15 on strict party lines, with one Republican absent.

The Republican party-line votes provoked a piece of Democratic political theater that virtually screamed of hypocrisy. Senator Nicholas Scutari (D-Union) opened the attack by insisting that he was “never told how to vote” by former Democratic Governors Jim McGreevey and Jon Corzine. “Bossism in New Jersey politics is alive and well. I would be embarrassed to come down here and be told how to vote.” Sweeney repeated the criticism at his press conference, suggesting that “It is amazing that the governor is 2,500 miles away, but the control he has reaches such great distances.” (Christie is attending a conference in Idaho.)

Democratic Bloc

The Scutari and Sweeney remarks, of course, come just two weeks after blocs of South Jersey and Essex County Democrats were accused of following the dictates of party bosses George Norcross, Joseph DiVincenzo and Steve Adubato Sr. by voting in lockstep to give Christie his biggest legislative triumph, a pension and health benefits overhaul that followed the lead of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker by effectively stripping public employees of the right to bargain over healthcare issues for four years.

Christie’s budget vetoes, however, reunited the Democratic Party under Sweeney, at least temporarily, a fact that was underscored at the press conference by the presence at Sweeney’s elbow of former Governor Richard Codey (D-Essex), whose ouster as Senate president and replacement by Sweeney was orchestrated by Norcross, DiVincenzo and Adubato two years ago.

Democrats are clearly still simmering over the governor’s cuts. “This is about payback and mean-spiritedness. He didn’t like the budget he got back, so he takes it out on Democratic programs,” said Senate Budget Committee Chairman Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen), noting that Christie eliminated or made deeper cuts in programs he had recommended funding in his original budget.

The most notable of these was a $537,000 cut in funding to the Wynona Lipman Child Advocacy Center, which assists sexually and physically abused children in Newark. The center’s director had made the fatal error of publicly criticizing Christie’s cuts in funding for Legal Aid services to the poor, and paid with a 75 percent cut to her budget.

Senate Majority Leader Barbara Buono (D-Middlesex) and Senator Linda Greenstein (D-Mercer) charged that many of the governor’s cuts were vindictive. In addition to the Lipman Center reduction, Buono noted that Christie cut Tuition Aid Grants to low-income college students and Legal Aid programs even more deeply after Democrats had added funding for them in their budget.

The governor also took the unprecedented step of cutting the Senate and Assembly partisan legislative staffs by $3 million and $1 million, and wiped out funding for two Rutgers University programs linked to Alan Rosenthal, the Rutgers professor who served as the neutral tie-breaker on the Legislative Redistricting Commission and chose the Democratic map over a Republican plan that Christie personally lobbied him to approve.

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