GOP senators get on board with supplemental budget bills after meeting with governor

TRENTON – Dinged last week but not derailed, the Republicans’ Trenton operation – at least on the senate side -appears unified headed into tomorrow’s vote on Gov. Chris Christie’s $29.4 billion budget. 

After initial reservations, Republican senators told Christie they will support several controversial supplemental bills tomorrow in exchange for one key concession, some other adjustments, and a promise from the governor to improve the school funding formula.

Sources say a hike on the business tax voted out of the budget committee on Thursday and designed to yield $5 million in revenue is now dead as part of the deal to hold onto state Sen. Mike Doherty from Washington Twp., one of at least three lawmakers with doubts heading toward tomorrow’s floor vote on the governor’s ancillary budget bills. 

Adamant about keeping his party in sync, Christie met personally with two senators on Friday afternoon following a week of mangled GOP communication lines and at least one significant mechanical meltdown.

After endorsing the budget bill last Monday, state Sen. Jennifer Beck of Red Bank, state Sen. Diane Allen of Edgewater Park and Doherty learned the governor understood their yes votes on the core budget also meant they would support some 15 supplementals.

It didn’t.

“I think there was a lack of communication,” acknowledged a Republican source close to his party’s leadership. “People didn’t have their eyes open in leadership and there was later the sense from some senators of, ‘Wait a minute, you want me to vote for this?'”

A hawk on taxes who supported movement conservative State Lonegan in last year’s primary – not Christie, Doherty abandoned his chair on the budget committee sooner than vote on a handful of the bills, including one increasing business filing fees by approximately 25 percent. Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean (R-Westfield) voted in his stead while Christie decided to work directly with the pair of disaffected lawmakers.

Beck and Doherty went to see the governor individually on Friday.

Don’t try to muscle him, Christie consiglieres told him, referring to the towering Doherty. You will only provoke him.

The tale of the tape revealed a letter in baseball for Christie versus football for Doherty. U.S. Army: Doherty. U.S. Attorney’s Office: Christie. Doherty boxed at West Point. Christie knocked over John Lynch and Sharpe James.

The meeting between the two men with Essex County origins went well, and so did Beck’s meeting with the governor.

Doherty had agonized over four or five of the supplemental budget bills, especially the business tax. Now Christie talked him through his worries.

“It’s important that the governor was responsive to some of these concerns,” said the senator, following the one-on-one meeting. “That’s an important hallmark of leadership. He gave my concerns a lot of consideration. I think one has to realize in the end, you can’t get everything. But we are getting progress.”

Sources say Doherty’s talk with the governor resulted in Christie saying he would kill the business filing fee that had caused the senator’s chief duress, and allow the amending of a gift card bill to remove a tax on small business.  

Moreover, Christie explained some of the other bills in enough detail to give Doherty the comfort level he needs to support them tomorrow.

Beck likewise came out of her closed door meeting with the governor feeling better about voting in the affirmative.

“I’m okay now, based on the preliminary information I looked at on Friday and based on my conversations Friday,” said the Monmouth County senator, who is ready to move forward in support of the amended supplemental budget legislation.

“There’s no question this is an historic moment in our state, and I think at the end of the day, since were cutting $4 billion out of the budget, we’re really left with very few choices. We’re not raising the income tax or the sales tax.”

In his session with Christie, Doherty mentioned that he didn’t approve of the governor’s school aid distribution priorities, which Doherty believes punish rural and suburban schools. 

The governor can’t do anything about that in this budget cycle, but, “He made a commitment to working toward a better school funding formula as an ultimate goal,” Doherty said. “Clearly, the governor is sensitive to the inequities in the current school funding formula.”

State Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-Wood-Ridge), chair of the Senate Budget Committee, confirmed that he anticipates reconvening his committee tomorrow to amend the supplemental bills in question.

Republicans’ anticipated synchronicity on the floor tomorrow will belie last week’s near derailment over the supplemental package. Part of Christie’s solemn entreaties to Beck and Doherty included a reminder that the GOP must stand united.

While, in the view of most observers, the majority party has itself projected less than robust health, “We secured $180 million in priorities in this budget,” proclaimed Sarlo in reference in the budget deal his party struck with Christie last week.

“We weren’t going to shut down government, and we were going to provide the votes (four, provided the 17 Republicans voted aye) needed to pass the amended budget,” said Sarlo.

Jangled by the prospect of empowering Democrats whom most believed he had already smothered throughout the budget process, Christie on his way toward the endgame didn’t want to swallow more concessions or have to crawl to the Dems for more votes.

When he saw Doherty’s empty chair on the budget committee and heard caucus static about senators digging in against the bills and threatening revolt, the governor dispatched deputy chief counsel Kevin O’Dowd to track the breakdown.

Sources said some senators felt the communication triangle among Kean’s people, the governor and themselves was out of alignment. A fierce policy wonk who knows government issues as well as anyone, Kean doesn’t thrive in the boiler room of politics, according to some observers in his own party.

The working class torchbearer of Kean’s father, former Gov. Thomas Kean, Christie in the throes of last week worried about the younger Kean’s ability to man-up – in the most Machiavellian sense.

Sarlo said as Kean and the Republicans tried to walk back the communications faux pas, Sen. Kevin O’Toole (D-Cedar Grove) – a gutfighter trained in part by Steve Adubato, and close ally of Beck’s and Doherty’s – prevented a crash on the GOP side.

“O’Toole did a great job of keeping the Republicans focused,” said the budget chairman. “They’re all in a new position. They’ve had eight years of sitting there and criticizing, now they had to defend their budget.”

But Doherty defended Kean, and said the minority leader acted capably throughout.

“We’re better for going through this process and better prepared to move forward Chris Christie’s agenda,” he said. “Everybody has new roles here. This is the first time we’re going through the process. It’s like when you’re conducting a load test on a piece of equipment, you arent going to ever find the problems until you do the test. Until you put the system under stress and break the engine in, you won’t get good traction.”

Doherty also suggested that the communications breakdown among legislative leadership and members of the governor’s inner circle created an invitation for senators and the governor to get closer – a needed dynamic with the governor in office just six months. 

“Mine was a productive meeting,” he said. “I think it’s better to have the one-on-one contact as so many of our conversations take place with 15 people in the room – a horrible way to communicate when you consider the way people posture.”

If the earliest run of Christie’s Republican operation bore traces of turbulence, Doherty and others argued that just as quickly the GOP handled trouble through role playing improvisation by the likes of O’Toole, and hands-on intervention by the governor.

“At the end of the day, we’re going to have a balanced budget,” said state Sen. Joe Kyrillos (R-Middletown). “We’re insisting on a $300 million surplus, we’re cutting spending by $4 billion; we vetoed the millionaire’s tax, and 95.5% of what the governor asked for is happening.”

While the senators lined up, however, tough GOP news persisted in the legislature’s lower chamber as Republican Assembly people Alison McHose and Michael Patrick Carroll said they still wouldn’t vote for the budget. Their rebellion kept opportunistic Democrats circling for more concessions in exchange for making up the two votes, and Christie working the phones with the knowledge that closer contact with lawmakers from his own party may, yet again, prove necessary.    

GOP senators get on board with supplemental budget bills after meeting with governor