Senate Dems showing fault lines over possible budget sponsorship

TRENTON – A group of Democratic lawmakers is pushing for the party to craft its own budget as an alternative to the one submitted by the governor, but so far little consensus has emerged.

Hanging in the balance of the discussion are Democratic initiatives like funding for family planning, restoration of Medicaid cuts to nursing homes, and another tour of duty for the millionaire’s surtax.

State Street Wire spoke with several legislators and staff members Wednesday to get a pulse on whether the majority will sponsor the budget document this year. The answers were mixed, and leadership is giving no indication of where the caucus will go. They discussed the issue recently in one of their caucus meetings, according to sources, but nothing near a consensus emerged.

Last year the Democratic majority in both houses passed on an opportunity to author and sponsor the FY11 budget. It was passed with a handful of Democrats joining the entire Republican roster, and aside from a few nips and tucks, it was generally the budget proposed by Republican Gov. Chris Christie.

This year, a group of Democratic legislators are petitioning their caucus to pick up the pen and craft the state’s spending document, but there has been no resolution to the issue. Privately some sources say the push has little chance of succeeding.

State Sen. Steve Sweeney (D-3), of West Deptford, had no comment on the emerging possibility today, but Christie clearly is prodding the Democrats to show him what they think the state should be spending, and more importantly, how they intend to pay for it.

“The Constitutional ball is now in the legislature’s court,” Christie said in his press conference on Tuesday in response to the N.J. Supreme Court decision mandating $500 million in educational funding be re-inserted in the FY12 budget to make up for a $1.7 billion shortfall in FY11. “It’s up to them,” he said. “They agreed with what I did last year…That’s why the court’s order today is not just to me, it’s to the people who passed the bill in the first place, the legislature…They can now express the priorities of the majority to me…It’s now time for them to come forward with a balanced, constitutional budget.”

The bill Christie refers to is rather the several bills, the FY11 budget bills, passed last summer and sponsored by minority budget officers in both houses.

“(The Democratic majorities) were not responsible during this budget process last year,” Assemblyman Joe Malone, (R-30), of Bordentown, told PolitickerNJ in February. He was the GOP budget officer in the Assembly last year, but has stepped down in favor of Assemblyman Declan O’Scanlon, (R-12), of Little Silver, who will shepherd the budget this year.

“I was very much afraid that (the Dems) were going to do the same thing again,” Malone said. “I’m the one who had to work out the final deals with the Governor’s Office (in 2010).”

The Republicans don’t have to convince Majority Leader Barbara Buono (D-18), of Metuchen, who has been sounding the horn for over a year on the issue.

“I think we need to have another caucus,” she told State Street today. “We put our names on it. We take ownership of it.”

Some other Senators in the upper chamber may also be rethinking the possibility, weighing the upsides and downsides, following the Supreme Court decision yesterday, including Sweeney, one source said.

But a few sources close to the Senate also said Buono, who at times has been an inter-caucus counterpoint to Sweeney, may also be attempting to score political points against the Senate president by repeatedly and publicly challenging the decision of the caucus last year. One source said when Buono was questioned at caucus on a particular potential pitfall to sponsoring the budget, she admitted on that point that she hadn’t thought that far ahead.

“Things like the revenue numbers and the Supreme Court decision, these are the things that leaders take into account before (going public) with a decision,” the source said. “The more she spoke the less support she had.”

But Buono isn’t alone, and her support seems to be growing. Several legislators agree that the majority should exercise their right to craft the budget, including state Sen. Ray Lesniak (D-20), of Elizabeth, who carries sway in the caucus.

“I welcome that opportunity,” he told State Street today. “There’s no doubt in my mind that the caucus will get behind that.”

That means they can install expected revenues from a millionaire’s tax, which Lesniak expects will be roughly $350 million, and forward a companion bill for the top-earner surtax. They can increase school funding above the $500 million the court required for 31 districts; as Sweeney said yesterday, they can double that to nearly $1 billion and reach over 200 districts with students in need of funding.

The Democrats can restore funding for family planning centers, Medicaid for nursing homes, and the After 3 after-school program.

State Sen. Jeff Van Drew (D-1), of Dennis Township, said although he’d like to see those Democrat-backed initiatives presented in the budget – even removal of savings earmarked from the closing of the Vineland Developmental Center in his district – he’s is acutely aware that Christie still has veto and line-item veto power.

“The governor is the governor,” he said. “I’m not doing this job for showmanship.”

Van Drew said, “I’d rather not (create) adversarial relationships, unless it’s an absolute necessity. I’d rather get this done.”

To Van Drew’s point, the Democrats do have the vote power to inform and amend a Republican budget, but only through Republican sponsors and with only the vote-leverage of those few Democratic lawmakers who are willing to side with Christie and the GOP come budget season.

Some Democrats, like state Sen. Robert Gordon (D-38), of Fair Lawn, just want the Democratic ideals on paper, a definition of what the party reps stand for.

“We should let core-constituencies know where we stand,” he said today, “and what our priorities are. I thought that last year, and I think this year we should present our own budget.”

“This argument has been going back and forth,” he said. “We would be putting money into women’s health. We would be asking for millionaires to share the burden.”

Like Gordon, state Sens. Loretta Weinberg (D-37), of Teaneck; Linda Greenstein (D-14), of Plainsboro; and Ron Rice (D-28), of Newark, have been supportive of the majority initiative in the past, and a few others are considering it, like state Sen. Nick Scutari (D-22), of Linden, but will wait to convene with the caucus before announcing their preference.

None of the Senators or their staffs expects to secure 27 votes that would override a veto by Christie, but Lesniak said, “I do think we can put the governor in a position to hold his nose and sign it with the millionaire’s tax in it, like (former Gov.) Tom Kean did with the sales tax.”

Whether or not the majority will author the budget may be unclear, but Christie’s stance on any new taxes in this budget is clear. There will be none, the governor said yesterday.

Senate Dems showing fault lines over possible budget sponsorship