New Jersey’s Republican governor and Democratic-controlled legislature have 51 days left to get on the same page and agree on next year’s state budget. Right now, they are not even reading the same book.
In a pair of press conferences held a half hour apart, the chasm became evident, as did the lawmakers' frustration over the governor's ability to not only set the agenda in Trenton but also control it as well.
Democratic leadership in both houses at a hastily called press conference said they would pass a new tax on individuals making more than $1 million. The goal is to restore rebates for senior citizens and help pay for their prescriptions.
Minutes later and about 100 feet away, Gov. Chris Christie outlined a package of 33 bills that he touted as putting New Jersey on track for real property tax reform. Much of the plan had been unveiled last month at the New Jersey Conference of Mayors, but the press conference still attracted probably more than double the television cameras and reporters who showed up earlier for the legislators event in the Statehouse. (For a closer read of Christie's proposals see View 1, View 2, and View 3.)
With lawmakers facing a deadline of June 30 to pass a budget, Christie said he wanted the legislature to pass his hefty package of bills by then, while vowing to veto any tax bill that comes to his desk. “No matter how they send it to me, it is going back. We are not raising taxes,’’ Christie said.
Democrats said they were more worried about passing a state budget than dealing with the governor’s package, which they said they only received late Friday. Much of it was not in standard bill form. The Governor’s office issued a press release that had only one-line descriptions of each of the bills, and made the bills available to reporters only later in the day.
“We are not going to hastily act,’’ Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) said when asked about the package, adding he did not think a constitutional amendment to fix a hard cap at 2.5 percent is needed. Sweeney and other legislative leaders said the budget is their top priority. “The governor has done a great job in distracting people on the budget," said Sweeney, citing the controversy over Christie's decision to replace Justice JohnWallace on the New Jersey Supreme Court last week and his repeated criticism of teachers and their salaries and benefits.
If lawmakers had their way, more focus would be on the budget unveiled by Christie in March, which calls for deep cuts in programs across the board, including the elimination of tax rebates for property owners, including senior citizens.
"I think it is incumbent for legislators, at some point, to draw a line in the sand," said Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-Essex). "We made a decision to stand up for our elderly citizens." (.)
Democrats hold healthy majorities in both houses, which should make it possible to pass the tax increase, but they would have a much more difficult time overriding the governor's veto. For example, four Republicans would have to join the 23 Democrats in the state Senate to override a veto.
Holding up the press release from the democratic majority’s office, the governor characterized their approach: “Bigger government, higher taxes, more spending.’’ His legislative package aims to rein in rising property taxes by imposing a hard cap on increases in the local, school and county property tax levy, as well as 2.5 percent cap on spending for state operations. Both proposals would have to be approved by voters in constitutional amendments.
In unveiling their millionaire’s tax, Democrats said the proposal extends the so-called “shared sacrifices’’ the Governor has called on New Jerseyans to shoulder, as a way of fixing the state’s budget crisis to the 16,000 people who earn more than $1 million a year. The so-called millionaire’s tax that was allowed to lapse last year applied to households with income of more than $400,000, applied to 63,000 New Jersey households. Sweeney said it would raise $637 million, an amount Christie disputed. “Their math doesn’t work,’’ the governor. An analysis by the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services agreed with the Democrat’s analysis.
“I think it is common sense,’’ Sweeney said. “How can they argue it’s unfair to ask 16,000 people to share the sacrifices?’’ The two houses are expected to begin consideration of the bill Thursday and are scheduled to vote on the measure the following week.
In rejecting the Democrats’ plan, Christie argued his administration wants to enact property tax relief that will last beyond one year. “What this is about is having everyone live within a budget,’’ he said, during a press conference in his outer office in the Statehouse. (Listen to an mp3 audio of the.)
Beyond the caps on spending, the administration’s package would reform how arbitrators are selected for public employee union contracts; require arbitrators to consider impact of union contracts on property taxes; and bar arbitrators from making contract awards that exceed the 2.5 percent cap. The package also allows counties and municipalities to opt out of the civil service system and other reforms governing civil service, such as bumping in layoffs and other significant changes in the civil service system, proposal likely to generate strong opposition from public employee unions.
The proposal got a welcome reception from Bill Dressel, the longtime lobbyist for the New Jersey State League of Municipalities. “If they are really serious about these changes, I think there is some short-term relief that can be achieved,’’ he said.
And despite his current differences with the Democrats, Christie was optimistic about passing a state budget before the deadline and getting his package through both houses. “Fifty-one days in Trenton is a long time, the Governor said.