Christie offers compromise; supports 2.5% statutory cap

TRENTON – Gov. Chris Christie today offered his version of a compromise on his proposed cap on property tax hikes, telling members of both houses he would accept a statutory cap rather than the constitutionally imposed cap he favors.

But Christie stressed that any taxcap he signs must have few exceptions and must only be overridden by a vote of the people.

“On that ground, we must stand firm,” Christie said.

The governor gave some ground on his initial proposal, saying he would sign a bill that exempted capital expenditures and debt service and provided a temporary exemption for existing collective bargaining agreements.  Once existing contracts expire, Christie said, the exemption should expire.  Christie’s initial proposal exempted only debt service.

Earlier this week, both houses passed into law a statutory cap of 2.9% that exempted health care, pensions and other costs. Today, Christie said he was unable to sign that legislation.

Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-West Deptford) said afterward he was “thrilled” the governor came off his demands for a constitutional cap, adding that the senate budget committee would begin meeting tomorrow to discuss options.

“I am happy that the governor realized it didn’t make sense to try to amend the constitution over the weekend,” he said.

Despite Christie’s demand for limited exceptions to the cap, the senate president stood firm on exempting healthcare, pensions and energy costs, calling them “very important.”  But Sweeney credited the governor for budging.

“He threw something out, now we can have a discussion,” he said.

Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-East Orange) said the lower house would conitnue the effort announced last week to study property tax reform.

“But this will be an extensive effort over the summer to properly analyze reforms put forth by Democrats and Republicans and develop a real plan of action to bring relief to taxpayers,” Oliver said.

Republican lawmakers applauded their leader, calling Christie a consensus builder, a title not used on the governor and his “my way or the highway” style before.

“A stroke of political brilliance,” says state Sen. Kevin O’Toole (R-Cedar Grove). “Chris Christie is the consensus builder.”

State Sen. Kip Bateman (R-Branchburg) agreed.

“You know, he had two speeches ready,” says the Somerset County senator. “He had a stinging speech, and he had a consensus speech. He decided on the consensus speech after talking to (Senate President Steve) Sweeney. I think it’s very reasonable.”

“We need to have a constituional cap, but the most important thing is to get this done and make it a hard cap,” said state Sen. Steve Oroho (R-Franklin). “

Although irritated by the theatricality of the event, state Sen. Jim Whelan (D-Atlantic City) says he heard a note of compromise in Christie’s address.

Still, he’s not convinced.

“I’d be looking at another option,” he says. “Now is the time to look into it. I don’t see how you can not put healthcare under the cap.”

Assembly Democrats also said they doubted a deal would get done in the next few days as Christie has demanded.  But leadership in that house also heard a hinit of compromise in the governor’s tone and said that at least is a start.

“First of all he moved to statutory from consititutional, that’s a compromise, fair is fair,” said Assembly Majority Leader Joe Cryan (D-Union Twp.).  Still Cryan said Christie was far from a consensus builder.

“I still think it’s his way or the highway, he’s just added another lane,” he said.

Cryan said he doubts legislators will be able to conclude negotiations on a cap by the end of the upcoming holiday weekend.

“I doubt there is any shot at that, there are too many people impacted.”

Christie was originally scheduled to speak first to the assembly and later to the senate, but in the end both houses came together.  Before the governor’s speech, Sweeney said he was willing to hear the governor’s compromise.

“What we have been saying all along is this is about compromise,” Sweeney said.  “Up to this point he has not been willing to move off his cap at all.”

Sweeney said if the two sides can find common ground the Democrats are willing to move.

“If there is someplace we can meet to help the taxpayers of New Jersey, we’ll be more than willing to do it,” Sweeney said.

Sweeney pitched his own compromise, saying that the Dmeocrats hope to find a cap even below the 2.5 requested by the governor.  Once the cap is right, the consitutional amendment can follow.

“If we get it right and we do a good job than yeah maybe you can constitutionalize it, but don’t make the mistake and put it in concrete,” he said.  “Create the model that works, then let’s talk about the constitutional amendment.”

Of the governor’s decision to compromise in the manner he did, Patrick Murray, pollster and poliical scientist at Monmouth University, said, “It was brilliant gamesmanship. The Democrats knew they could wait him out. The governor removed the July 7th deadline and said you still have to do this, putting it back on them.”

Christie offers compromise; supports 2.5% statutory cap