TRENTON – The Statehouse had that ghost town feel to it with drama mostly consigned to the furrowed brow faces on the walls of former governors whose names are now more associated with sign posts than deeds.
Despite the summer-time lull, there remained a nagging piece to the present day battle here, and it involved Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (East Orange).
“We’re in the midst of getting something pulled together,” the speaker told PolitickerNJ.com when asked if she is meeting with Gov. Chris Christie this afternoon.
Oliver was the lone legislative leader who refused to sign the 2.0 property tax cap agreement last Saturday.
Now, she hammered out face time with Christie sometime this afternoon to discuss a strategy one day before Assembly Democrats caucus Wednesday at 10 a.m.
Sources say Oliver told Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-West Deptford) on Friday evening that she would not be party to an agreement with the governor on a spending cap. She wanted time to vet the governor’s compromise proposal of a statutory cap with exemptions – as opposed to the constitutional cap he had driven for weeks.
And she wanted to talk to members of her caucus.
Two days after Sweeney joined the governor and committed to the cap, Oliver – for the moment – held.
“The devil is in the details,” she said, “and the first thing I want to do is see the bill. I want to see the four elements in the bill.”
As reported Saturday by PolitickerNJ.com’s Darryl Isherwood, the agreement calls for a 2 percent cap on property tax increases, but carves out exceptions for healthcare costs, pension costs, debt service and capital expenditures and emergency allocations. Voter approval of 50 percent plus one vote would be required to exceed the cap.
Oliver noted, too, that the governor has yet to veto Senate Bill 29, the 2.9% statutory property tax cap plan that passed in both houses as an alternative to Christie’s initial constitutional cap proposal.
Two different sources said the speaker intended to tell the governor that she would prefer a more public process. She also may have planned to suggest that Christie exempt state aid from his proposed 2.0 spending cap, which Sweeney agreed to on Saturday.
“State aid has been bandied about, but I don’t know what the governor’s willingness is going to be on that,” Oliver said.
But the other part of Oliver’s challenge will be to gauge her caucus, where members in public sector worker-dominant districts worry about a spending cap plan that – coupled with pension reform earlier this year – will lilkely result in squeezing a union membership of 700,000 strong.
The New Jersey Education Association (NJEA), for example, signaled early dismay with the agreement secured by Christie and Sweeney.
“We’re worried about protecting public schools, and this would devastate public schools,” said NJEA spokesman Steve Baker. “We’re going to continue to push. Our job is to advocate for pubic schools. The vote hasn’t been taken yet.
“A cap on funding for public education that is at least 50% below the rate of inflation with no exception for drops in state aid or rising special ed costs – that’s a cap with no basis in reality.”
That dismay rattled in the majority party chamber.
“Are we willing to give up that friendship that quickly?” wondered one assembly Democrat, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Democrats in the lower house also fretted about getting nothing out of the agreement and essentially being relegated to back bench status. As it stands, Christie got a cap under 2.9%, Sweeney landed a statutory cap as opposed to Christie’s constitutional cap.
“Public sector workers are property taxpayers too; they want relief,” submitted a source close to Oliver.
But what have the Assembly Democratic leaders nailed?
Assemblyman Lou Greenwald (D-Voorhees) can argue that behind the scenes he dug in more forcefully than anyone else for the 2.0% spending cap. Assemblyman Paul Moriarty (D-Washington Twp.) and Assemblyman John Burzichelli (D-Paulsboro) can comfortably make the case that the bulk of concessions in the current agreement – or toolkit provisions – originate in bills of their own authorship.
“I’m willing to spread the credit around,” said Moriarty, referring to Christie and Sweeney’s Saturday press conference. “We don’t have to hog the credit.”
Still, a release fired off by 4th district rival Assemblyman Domenick DiCicco (R-Sewell) landed in Moriarty’s airspace like an irritating reminder of perception politics. DiCicco accused Moriarty of running off to spend vacation time with family this past weekend while Christie and the Republicans toiled over the cap.
“When it comes time to run for re-election, I will dutifully ring my own bell,” Moriarty said. “Remember, it was the Democrats who put into effect a cap, and people forget about that.”
However, running on a parallel line with the GOP governor does not constitute an acceptable tactic, according to Assembly Majority Leader Joe Cryan (D-Union Twp.).
Sources say Cryan – a bitter political enemy of the governor’s going back to last year’s gubernatorial race – again chafed at being frozen out of negotiations, and at the notion that the current caucus leadership – namely himself and Oliver – exacted as yet no concessions from Christie on this issue.
The former Democratic State Party chairman saw political mistakes. Reform Jersey Now, for example, the group tied to Christie and his agenda, made robocalls and initiated a mail campaign that hit voters in swing districts last Friday.
Some Demcoratic operatives inundated with constituent calls urging their district legislators to vote for Christie’s constitutional cap, acknowledged fear in the face of good GOP organization. But Cryan couldn’t help but take note of the bungled timing: the fact that Reform Jersey Now was still endorsing the constitutional cap a day after the governor had backed away from that plan in favor of the statutory version.
And while he and Greenwald had argued over where the caucus should draw the battle line with the governor (Cryan wanted more exemptions; Greenwald wanted to one-up Christie with a public declaration of support for a 2.0% as opposed to the governor’s initial 2.5% cap), both men gleefully observed the governor’s office Friday attempting to explain the whereabouts of state Department of Education Commissioner Bret Schundler.
The governor wanted fast-tracked hearings, but then was unable to provide key staff for the first of those hearings.
Then there was the little matter of more than 150 mayors around the state staunchly endorsing a constitutional – as opposed to the statutory – cap, only to watch the governor do an about face without warning on Thursday and embrace the statutory version.
Cryan and Greenwald believed Christie was blundering, and while the former – sensing opportunity – tried to convince Oliver late Friday to take advantage of what the majority leader sensed was a political derailment – maybe a minor one – but at least a disconnect nonetheless – Christie diffused the latter when he struck his agreement with Sweeney the following day.
Although not present for the grip and grin session as a consequence of the Assembly Dems’ still in a holding pattern behind Oliver, Greenwald took some measure of satisfaction from the fact that the deal contained his 2.0% provision.
But the image of Sweeney standing beside the governor at Saturday’s press conference to formally announce the agreement pained Cryan, according to sources. By not forcing the usually political agile Christie to work harder through some of the belly flops of the prior two days, Cryan was convinced Sweeney not only threw a sinking Christie a life preserver but gave him a yacht.
Cryan had another problem.
Oliver’s close ties to Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo blunted her eagerness for pitched battles with the governor’s office. Not only was DiVincenzo already on record with backing “95% of what the governor is doing,” but the powerful Essex Democrat secured the most obvious big ticket concession items in the Republican governor’s budget.