TRENTON – It looked like bedlam, but closer inspection revealed a perfect fault line.
The governor’s speech ended and that great mass of lawmakers spilled into the aisles and into the well of the chamber amid a crowd of reporters who heard them to a man or to a woman either applaud (if they were Democrats) or denounce (if they were Republicans) the 2010 budget speech.
“I think he did an admirable job,” said Assemblyman Albert Coutinho (D-Newark). “We’re still going to be lower than the highest tax rate in New York. Only those that are making over $500,000 a year are getting a tax increase.”
“A three-quarters of one percent tax increase,” put in Assemblyman Thomas Giblin (D-Montclair).
“We’re trying to spread the pain as much as possible in the midst of a global recession,” said Coutinho. “But we are dedicated to preserving programs for the underserved.”
On the other side of the party divide, Republicans in a gubernatorial election year with a strong frontrunner in former U.S. Attorney Chris Christie were geared up to put the budget proposal down.
“It’s a direct assault on New Jersey’s middle class,” said Assemblywoman Caroline Casagrande (R-Colts Neck). “When people learn that there is going to be no property tax rebate for those making more than $75,000 and no property tax reduction, it’s going to be certain defeat for Jon Corzine in November.”
State Sen. Bill Baroni’s (R-Hamilton) 14th District all week long served as a pre-budget address battleground for Corzine as he and his administration tried to get state workers – many of them residents of Hamilton and other Mercer County towns around Trenton – to stand down and accept wage freezes and furloughs.
Those workers will keep their jobs after negotiations, but like Casagrande, Baroni said Corzine’s property tax rebate freezes proposal and his proposal to do away with the property tax deduction – would hit middle class homeowners too hard.
“Gov. Corzine talked about families at their kitchen tables,” said Baroni. “When they hear this speech on the news, they’re going to be pounding on their kitchen tables.”
The crack was a reference to Corzine’s opening image: “Around kitchen tables, every family knows what it means to make tough choices in these tough times. But people also understand the importance of making the right choices. They identify their most important priorities, and they change their spending habits to live within their means. That’s exactly what those of us in this chamber must do in this budget session.”
Gubernatorial candidate Assemblyman Richard Merkt (R-Mendham) amplifiedBaroni’s argument of rebateand property tax deduction freezes.
“This amounts to a declaration of war on New Jersey’s middle class.” Merkt also objected to the governor’s denunciation of one-shot gimmicks, even asCorzine relies in the proposed budget, in Merkt’s view, on the “one shot gimmick” of $2 billion from the federal stimulus package.
Although not happy about the some of the affects of the scaled back budget, state Sen. Majority Leader Stephen Sweeney (D-Bridgeton) disagreed with Baroni, arguing the Democratic Party line about shared sacrifice.
“I look at it this way,” “said Sweeney. “It’s better to have a job with health care than be out of a job. We’re trying to minimize that as much as possible.”
Standing at Sweeney’s shoulder was state Sen. Kevin O’Toole (R-Cedar Grove), and he didn’t have to shake his head for an observer to see that he disagreed with Sweeney’s assessment of the situation.
O’Toole said Corzine’s man-up message in his fourth year in office simply underscores his inability over the course of the past three years to recognize the budgetary blunders of previous Democratic administrations.
“This was a stinging rebuke and repudiation of past practices and pointed to Democrats under McGreevey, Codey and Corzine,” said O’Toole.
“That’s undeniable and with no nuance,” he added, mischievously lifting a line of Corzine’s from the speech the governor had just delivered.
Mobbed by media inthe well of the Assembly chamber, Minority Leader Alex DeCroce (R-Parsippany) said, “Remember, the governor proposed a 40% tax decrease over the course of four years, and it galls me that we’ve gone the opposite way.”
Later, in the underground hallway between the Statehouseand theannex, Assemblywoman Elease Evans (D-Paterson)and Assemblywoman Cleopatra Tucker (D-Newark) backed each other up in backing up Corzine.
“The governor’s trying to do the right thing,” said Evans. “We didn’t create this problem. It exists around the country.”
“New Jersey’s not the only state that’s in trouble,”agreed Tucker. “We are looking after seniors and children and everyone else is sharing the pain. If anyone has a better plan, we need to know about it.”
A figure came hurriedly around the corner.
It was former Assemblyman Craig Stanley (D-Newark), bumpedoff by Tuckerin 2007 and now rumored to be primed for a comeback if he can get Essex County Democratic Chairman Phil Thigpen to give him the 28th District line.
“I’m probably running,” said Stanley in an exchange with PolitickerNJ.com separate from Tucker and Evans.
Even as individual legislators in their reactions pacified the specific demographic demands of their respective constituencies and maintained a friendly mood with one another regardless of party,GOP ireremained fastened onthe man who’d just stepped off the rostrum – Corzine -in a gubernatorial election year.
“This was the start of the rallying cry toa battle we will see develop over the next six months,” said political science Prof. Brigid Harrison of Montclair State University.