TRENTON – The budget crunch is in full effect this week. The wave of opposition against pension and benefits reform crested last week, according to Trenton insiders, and now the focus will be on the state’s spending blueprint. Unions and Democratic stalwarts were dejected at week’s end – and could come back reinvigorated on Monday – but many people expect that the worst of the protest is over.
On Monday, the Assembly Budget Committee will hear the reform bill, while the full Senate will vote on the bill backed by state Sen. President Steve Sweeney, (D-3), of West Deptford, Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver, (D-34), of East Orange, Gov. Chris Christie, and the entire Republican caucuses.
But by Monday night, most of the attention will shift – quickly – to budget talk.
The final product needs to be done by the following Thursday, June 30; many questions that need to be answered by then. One of the first to be answered, likely this week is: Will the Democratic leadership and Gov. Chris Christie again strike a deal to have Republicans draft the budget bills? Sources said the deal is already in place for this to happen, which means Democratic votes would be promised to the front office in return for control of the spending document.
With all of the fervor from Dems over the millionaire’s tax and women’s health funding, they’ll have little control to install them in the budget once they hand over control to the minority. This could further provoke their political base, which is already questioning their level of Democratic-ness. Last year, there was sufficient recoil from Democratic supporters who wanted the majority party to write their own budget, rather than hand votes to Christie, so much so that this year a majority of the Democratic caucuses are said to be in favor of authoring the spending document. But alas, leadership is not so determined.
When asked last week what the decision would be in the Assembly, where the budget originates, Assemblyman Lou Greenwald, (D-6), of Voorhees, who is the budget officer and chairman of the Budget Committee, said he didn’t know yet, but that he would listen for direction from his caucus… and the governor. This week, a decision will be made, and sources said it will be the GOP signing the bills.
Another question for the budget-heavy week: Will the revenue influx – projected to be around $700 million – be a sufficient stopgap to pay a $500 million school bill and fill a $300 million benefit reform shortfall? Seems likely that the math sorts itself out, sources said, but will the state need to rely on surplus to get to the finish line?
Not relating to the budget, but also in question this week is the medical marijuana program. Sources said Christie is setting up a fall guy – the U.S. Department of Justice – so that when he kills the program, he can point critics elsewhere. DOJ said last week that it would soon be sending its response to New Jersey’s inquiry on prosecution of state workers carrying out the program directives. It’s unclear, one insider said, how the DOJ will explain seemingly contradictory opinions between a department memo giving the all-clear for state workers and two U.S. Attorney letters that claim the opposite would be true.
Also getting play this week is the state’s privatization of New Jersey Network, which the Senate Budget Committee will take testimony on Thursday. If the Legislature wanted to actually fight the station’s transfer, it could organize a veto campaign in both houses and vote to overturn Christie’s plan – but that’s not happening, according to sources. The Dems will sound off on parts of the plan, and in the end, they don’t even need to vote for it; they just have to not veto it.
Some Democrats are heading up a fight against Christie removing the state from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. Two bills are in committee on Monday, including SCR164, sponsored by state Sen. Linda Greenstein (D-14), of Plainsboro, and Bob Smith (D-17), of Piscataway. The resolution declares withdrawal from RGGI to be “inconsistent with legislative intent,” and “affirms support” for the program. But in the end, the legislators cannot stop Christie from taking the state out of the program, the governor said.
Christie will hold a town hall in Fair Lawn on Wednesday morning, resurfacing from a quiet week from the front office. Two sources said Christie was reveling in the Democratic dysfunction last week, not to mention the unions’ public relations implosion.
After a CWA vice president invoked Nazi regimes at the union rally on Thursday, anti-union sources had the same sentiment: “I told you so,” as in, “I told you that the union would undermine its own cause.” They did, which even union reps were admitting on Friday, wondering how after they’d cautiously warned all of their rank and file members to watch what they do and say, that a national labor figure would be the one to slip up.
With the reforms in place and the votes in hand, many legislators are already putting the pension and benefits debate behind them. But still staring them in the face is the budget. Ten days from now, as one legislator said, it’ll be all over and everyone will disappear until November. Welcome to the stretch run.