1992-1993: How Divided Government Worked in New Jersey

As in any transition, speculation is rampant as to whom Governor-elect Chris Christie will appoint as Chief of Staff, State Treasurer, and Attorney General. His appointment to the position of Chief Counsel, however, will be equally as important. Traditionally, in situations where the Governor and the Legislature are of different political parties, the Governor’s Chief Counsel is the person responsible for making divided government work.

 

The 1992-1993 legislative session provides a good case study in modern New Jersey history as to how divided government can work. The key players were Governor Jim Florio, his Chief Counsel, Robert DeCotiis, and the two Republican legislative leaders, Senate President Don DiFrancesco, and Assembly Speaker Chuck Haytaian.

 

After the 1991 elections, in which the Republicans achieved veto-proof majorities in both the Senate and Assembly, the Governor and the Legislature were first embroiled in 1992 in a veritable political war, culminating in the Republican Legislature overriding Florio’s veto of 1) the sales tax reduction from seven to six percent and 1) the Republican budget that reduced the Governor’s proposed expenditures by $1.4 billion. During the month of June, 1992, a Republican legislative staff member like myself would feel as if he was in a warzone when he walked by the Governor’s office.

 

Matters changed during the month of July, 1992. Speaker Haytaian telephoned the Governor and invited him to have breakfast in his office with both him and Senate President DiFrancesco. At the meeting, the parties reached agreement to attempt to cooperate on three issues: Education, health care, including both charity care and health insurance, and the Fiscal Year 1994 budget.

 

Bob DeCotiis became the “point man” for legislative negotiations with the Florio administration. In my view, he and Cary Edwards, Chief Counsel to Governor Tom Kean, were the two most effective Governor’s Chief Counsels in modern New Jersey political history.

 

While remaining loyal to his Governor, DeCotiis established friendly relationships both personally and professionally with DiFrancesco and Haytaian, as well as other key legislators and senior staffers. His open door informal style created an atmosphere conducive to cooperation. The results were most beneficial.

 

In education funding, in the Public School Reform Act of 1992, the Senate and Assembly Republican education chairs, Jack Ewing and John Rocco, achieved their goal of preventing any further reduction of state aid to non-Abbott school districts. Abbott school districts, represented mostly by Democrat legislators, also received a substantial increase in state aid.

 

On health care, the Governor and legislature achieved agreement on charity care distribution after intense negotiation. Additionally, legislation was passed and signed by Governor Florio establishing five standard individual health insurance policy options.

 

With regard to the Fiscal Year 1994 budget, there was very little contentiousness between Governor Florio and the legislature. Agreement was reached on the major issues early in the process, and the details were resolved smoothly comfortably in advance of the June 30 deadline for passage.

 

Jim Florio was a Governor who had originally sought to achieve liberal change on various critical issues. The ultimate irony of his administration, however, was that he and Bob DeCotiis left a legacy as to how a Governor could cooperate with a legislature of the opposing party to make divided government work. In fact, it was his increased cooperation with a Republican legislature that almost resulted in a Florio reelection victory.

 

The situation that Chris Christie and his Chief Counsel will face when he takes office in 2010 with a Democratic legislature involves both obstacles and opportunities. The fundamental obstacle facing the new Governor will be in achieving Senate confirmation of his appointments to the New Jersey Supreme Court.

 

Unless the reapportionment process results in a remarkably favorable district map to the Republicans in 2011, Christie is likely to govern with a Democrat Senate throughout his administration, whether he serves one or two terms. Even a popular Governor Tom Kean could not achieve the election of a Republican Senate in 1983 or 1987.

 

Christie has pledged to nominate justices to the Supreme Court who will not legislate from the bench. With a Democratic Senate, he will face a very difficult, although not impossible situation in getting such strict constructionist justices confirmed. In order to achieve confirmation of the new Governor’s Supreme Court appointees, Christie’s new Chief Counsel will have to possess the political, as well as legal skills of a Cary Edwards or a Bob DeCotiis.

 

If Christie’s judicial appointments fail to fundamentally change the Supreme Court, he will be unable to prevent the state’s highest court from continuing to divert an excessive share of state school aid from suburban to urban school districts. The resulting continuing high suburban property taxes that were a key factor in Christie’s election will still make New Jersey unaffordable for the middle class of all races and ethnic groups.

 

On the budget front, however, which is the current crisis facing the incoming Governor, there may actually be an ironic advantage for Christie to govern with a Legislature of the opposition party.

 

Chris Christie was elected Governor by a comfortable margin, although not a landslide. His election was clearly a mandate against further new or increased state taxes.

 

Unless there is a major national economic recovery resulting in a surge of new revenues, which does not appear likely, Christie will have to make draconian budget cuts in order to keep his anti-tax pledge and still balance the budget. If the Democratic legislature balks at his budget cuts and creates a stand-off, the new Governor may well be seen by the public as the Sir Galahad preventing the citizenry from being forced to incur more taxes.

 

The Democrat legislators will portray Christie in such a clash as a heartless, cruel, and insensitive Governor, balancing the budget on the backs of the state’s most needy citizens. In such a clash, however, Christie is likely to prevail with the public due to the potency of his anti-tax message. Eventually, the Democrats will have to provide some votes in each legislative house for the passage of his budgets. If they do not, they will be seen by the electorate as being obstructionist and pro-tax increases.

 

When Christie faces the voters again in his 2013 reelection drive, he will be then able to say that his budget cuts passed with bipartisan support and that he kept his anti-tax pledges. This will be a major positive for him in 2013, regardless of his standing on other issues at that time. Democrats will have been forced to share responsibility with Christie for difficult budget cuts. This would not be the case if Republicans controlled the legislature. On the budgetary front, at least, divided government may well prove to be an advantage for Governor Chris Christie.

 

The 1992-1993 experience of New Jersey shows that policy advances can occur in spite of the existence of a Governor and Legislature of opposing parties. Indeed, the legacy of Governor Chris Christie will be largely determined by how well he and his Chief Counsel minimize the obstacles and maximize the opportunities of divided government.

 

 

Alan J. Steinberg served as Regional Administrator of Region 2 EPA during the administration of former President George W. Bush. Region 2 EPA consists of the states of New York and New Jersey, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and seven federally recognized Indian nations. 1992-1993:  How Divided Government Worked in New Jersey