The 13-vote gamble: How a majority-crafted budget could force a line-item showdown and avoid a government shutdown

TRENTON – The deck is being shuffled on legislative districts, but until the re-deal in November, Gov. Chris Christie has to play the hand he’s been dealt: a minority in both houses.

A year ago, that meant lining up 12 cross-aisle votes for the budget by June 30 – four in the Senate and eight in the Assembly.

This year, indications are that the Democrats are drawing up their own budget, at least according to Majority Leader Barbara Buono (D-18), of Metuchen.

“It’s safe to assume we’re not going to agree with many of the governor’s priorities if last year’s budget is an indication,” Buono said. “Given what a disaster that budget was for working men and women, we have to be ready. The budget is a moral document and these are our priorities enshrined.”

Last year, the Democrats’ tactic to allow the Republicans to draft the budget was widely questioned. The Dems heard internal and external criticism for their decision.

Minority Leader Tom Kean, Jr. (R-21), of Westfield, called it abdication of their duties, while party backers wondered why the majority hadn’t at the very least put their alternative on paper for all to see.

This year the Dems tipped their hand, but their possible alternative proposal may let the governor off the hook from a politically hazardous and potentially booby-trapped budget gauntlet.

The Dem’s counterproposal removes the Republican administration’s courtship and negotiations with key Democratic lawmakers – integral to the FY11 budget passage – from the process. This year, the onus will be on the Dems to present a budget, their opponents say, adding that even the Millionaire’s Tax won’t be able to save them from their own multitrack priorities.

Of course the Democrats don’t need to put their counteroffer on the table until mid-June – after redistricting and primaries – so they’ll have plenty of time to rail against Christie’s blueprint before deciding whether to actually come up with their own version.

If the vote comes down to Christie’s proposal rather than the Dems’ plan, the governor would need an additional budget vote from the dozen he corralled between the two chambers for his $28.4 billion budget last summer. State Sen. Linda Greenstein (D-14), of Plainsboro, has since defeated Tom Goodwin and removed an upper chamber vote for the governor.

Christie would need a baker’s dozen to come across the aisle for the FY12 budget that he’s unveiling today.

Beyond that additional degree of difficulty, the other variables this year are redistricting and elections. Those variables, many sources agree, would make it much more challenging, if not impossible, for Christie to find Democratic defectors in the short term, and possibly the long term as well.

As one source put it: “You’re not going to get anything truthful from anybody until after redistricting.”

There is a small chance that Republicans come out of redistricting and primary season with some sort of ‘win’ that would entice defectors, but most likely no definitive win will be clear until November.

All of which is to say that the Democrats may have chosen the wrong year to see the governor’s raise.

By drafting their own budget, passing it, and letting the governor veto item by item until he’s satisfied, the Democrats will draw out the budget process, although they may admirably avoid shutting down government.

As two Democratic sources framed the situation, if Christie doesn’t have the budget votes to begin with, why allow a stalemate to play out.

The GOP is still wary of a head-fake. “That would shock me,” one Republican operative said of the Democrats drawing up their own budget.

It’s going to be tough wrangling left-center votes for the governor’s budget in an election year, the source agreed, but things may change as districts change. “A lot of this is going to be predicated on the map.”

Last year, Christie found the majority of his swing votes – three in the Senate and five in the Assembly – from three districts: District 1, District 33, and District 29.

State Sens. Jeff Van Drew (D-1), of Dennis Twp.; Brian Stack (D-33), of Union City; and M. Teresa Ruiz (D-29), of Newark, are the blue dogs that Christie leaned on last year, along with all of their Assembly compatriots except one.

The wily Stack is an entity unto himself, still considered very likely to vote for the governor’s spending plan, should it come to that.

Those other votes may partially be fruits of Christie’s continued relationships with Essex County kingmaker Steve Adubato, who is Ruiz’s political godfather, and South Jersey powerbroker George Norcross, who has kept Van Drew’s campaign coffers flush over the years.

Politics aside, Van Drew is likely to be there this year if his vote is needed to keep the gears of government moving seamlessly.

He has only four budget priorities: 1. No tax, fee, or rate increases; 2. No overall increase to the budget; 3. Tax relief, especially property tax relief; and 4. Do not stop government.

Since the budget last year was reduced overall, one of his criteria was met; but Christie’s plan also included rate increases and the elimination of homestead rebates, i.e. less property tax relief.

That’s one for three, Van Drew told PolitickerNJ yesterday, but the fourth criterion is very important: government has to continue to operate to do any good for any one.

His swing vote last year afforded him the right to be critical at times. He took umbrage to the 76 percent reduction in library funding in the plan. “We got some of that money back,” he said.

Van Drew is a realist; he understands that not everyone is going to get what they want from the budget, but he insists the arrangements should be fair. He sees his role – last year and presumably this year – as one of maintaining level-headedness and distributing shared sacrifice in the truest sense.

“I do not regret (my vote last year), no I don’t,” Van Drew said. “We must get the budget done on time. For god sake, we owe that to the people of the state.”

Stack and Ruiz were not available for comment yesterday, and Ruiz, like Stack, is considered a near lock for Christie’s budget – if need be.

With Van Drew, Stack, and Ruiz, that’s three of five votes presumably at Christie’s disposal.

The other Senate vote last year came from state Sen. Sandra Cunningham (D-31), of Jersey City, who isn’t tipping her hand this time around.

“I can’t really speak on that until I hear what the governor is going to say,” she told PolitickerNJ yesterday before hurriedly ending the conversation.

Given that Cunningham already has a primary opponent waiting in the wings – 39-year-old African American bar owner Bruce Alston – and given that Jersey City was severely affected by school and municipal aid cuts last year, one official source close to her district put it mildly: “I don’t think she’s a guarantee.”

“I can’t imagine going into this year – if Jersey City is walloped like it was last year – that she would vote for the budget,” the source said.

If Cunningham is a ‘no,’ that would still leave two votes for Christie to court. Even if she’s a ‘yes,’ the governor may still have a hard time finding one more Democratic Senator to side with him in what might be the most pivotal vote in an election year.

As several top-level officials and staff from both parties scanned the Senate Democrats for potential votes to be had, very few names came to mind yesterday.

Two names came up as possible capitulation votes – state Sens. Jim Beach (D-6), of Voorhees, and Robert Gordon (D-38), of Fair Lawn – but neither is anything approaching a more than a possible, not nearly probable ‘aye.’ Both have redistricting issues and neither has been extraordinarily close with the governor, so the last few votes for Christie in the Senate would be hard gets to say the least.

Last year, the Assembly spread out the political pain of passing Christie’s budget items by having various legislators take on some 30-odd supplementary bills.

Their leadership – Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-34), of East Orange, and Majority Leader Joe Cryan (D-20), of Union Twp., namely – stepped up to cast the final votes needed to find passage. (Unlike the Senate leaders, as some observers pointed out, who are again expected to be nowhere near Christie’s budget.)

The Assembly Dems also tapped the shoulders of a few “safe-district” comrades to get to the finish line and avoid a standoff: Assemblymen Upendra Chivukula (D-17), of Franklin Twp., and Albert Coutinho (D-29), of Newark.

But those votes – and potentially the lower chamber votes that Stack and Van Drew brought along – may also be harder to come by this year for Christie.

“As the year progressed, things have become more and more difficult,” Chivukula said of dealing with the governor.

For instance, recently Christie noticed his intention to find money in the budget for school vouchers, Chivukula said, but not the bipartisan job creation bills passed by the legislature. The majority of those bills were vetoed. “Yet he has the financing for Revel (in Atlantic City),” Chivukula said. “If it’s not his idea, it’s not that good. He seems to have the financing when he needs to.”

“It’s going to be different from last year,” Chivukula said of the budget process. “At the end of the day, he will balance the budget and it will go through. But it’s going to be more of a joint process. I don’t think he can run the Democrats the way he wants to run the Republicans…It’s a democratic process. It is not the Middle East where one man says this is where we are going.”

Chivukula doesn’t regret his vote last year – “I’m not for shutting down government” – but is much more cautious heading into this year. “We cannot balance this budget in the backs of middle class.”

Christie’s need for 13 D votes takes for granted that the entire Republican delegation is automatically onboard. They are not, which means he could need more than 13 flips.

A few Republican legislators told PolitickerNJ that Christie is slowly losing his own party support. Some elected officials are not pleased with the time and effort and incentives Christie is offering Democrats to bring them in on policy and budget points.

In response, one GOP leader said the need for Democratic votes in a Democratic majority is obvious, but the fact that the governor’s overall agenda of reform is progressing is what’s really important.

Last year, several Republican legislators clashed with the front office over specific budget objections before showing up for the final budget vote.

State Sen. Mike Doherty (R-23), of Washington Twp., was able to negotiate several amendments, while state Sens. Jennifer Beck (R-12), of Red Bank, and Diane Allen (R-7), of Edgewater Park, took a stand with female Democrats in their ultimately fruitless fight for restoration of women’s health funding. Initial Assembly defectors Alison Little McHose (R-24), of Franklin Twp., and Michael Patrick Carroll (R-25), of Morris Plains, were also finally brought on board after publicly denouncing parts of the governor’s plan.

Once again, this year may be shaping up to be different.

“The governor clearly did give away several million dollars here or there to get his budget passed,” Carroll said Monday. “It was absurd…I was not very happy with the way things were done last year.”

“He chose to (side with Democrats). I think they kicked sand in his face,” he said. “They spent the whole god-fracking day bitching about the budget.”

But it was the substance of the budget that had Carroll preparing for one of his lone right-wing holdouts, especially the school funding choices. “I think (Christie) surrendered pre-emptively to the court and stuck the suburban districts to the corner.”

Looking forward to this year, Carroll – like many other Republican sources – invites the Democrats to bring their own plan to the table.

“Let them throw a Millionaire’s Tax at us,” he said. “They’re the majority party. Let them lead.”

The decision by the Democrats to take on the task of crafting a budget this year as opposed to last year is interesting; not just because it’s an election year, but because Christie’s road to passage may be more difficult in 2011 than 2010.

As one Republican official warned, the Dems may yet step away from the budget offering at the last minute and hand the task to Republican Budget Officers state Sen. Anthony Bucco (R-25), of Boonton, and Assemblyman Declan O’Scanlon (R-12), of Little Silver. After all, they did last year, the official said. And Bucco was there to pick up the task a few weeks out from the vote, no problem.

Heading into his second budget address today, the deck is seemingly stacked against Christie to get his budget passed. But with wild cards and jokers in the mix, no one is getting up from this table anytime soon.

The 13-vote gamble: How a majority-crafted budget could force a line-item showdown and avoid a government shutdown