Weekly Advance: Week of July 25

TRENTON – Shifting sands have the Democrats in the Assembly looking for new ways to highlight Gov. Chris Christie’s budget cuts, as the chief executive came home from vacation last week and quickly restored what were considered his most damaging cuts.

Christie wasted no time in restoring Transitional Aid for distressed cities on Monday, pulling $139 million from his surplus to calm the mayors who flirted with severe credit downgrades as a result of the cut in his two-week absence.

At the same time, the lower-chamber Democrats were planning their summer hearings on Christie’s cuts, including a session on Transitional Aid scheduled for this Tuesday. When mayors caught wind of the governors’ change of heart, sources said they told Assembly leadership they weren’t interested in a dog-and-pony political act that could jeopardize their chances of banking the aid this year.

Adjusting their approach, the Dems are looking at whether they can challenge the governor’s proposal to restore the aid (minus 1 percent for oversight removed by Dems, which provoked Christie’s red-line of aid to begin with) by offering up an alternate bill, the details of which sources were not familiar with.

The second stop on Christie’s restore tour was Essex County, where he announced – two weeks too late to avoid panic – that federal funding would replace the $537,000 for the Wynona Lipman Child Advocacy Center that he removed in his budget.

The Assembly was also planning to highlight this cut in its hearing regarding cuts to children’s programs last Tuesday, but now they are just scratching their heads as to why Christie let rumor and assumption about closure of the facility run rampant for two weeks while he was away.

Even so, the Assembly Democrats are left with only one budget cut that needs to be addressed this week, legal services for the poor, which the Judiciary Committee and program advocate Assemblyman Peter Barnes, (D-18), of Edison, will discuss on Wednesday.

Although Christie plowed through his budget fixes last week, he’s still mired in legislation that the lawmakers passed during their final budget-season binge.

Among the bills on Christie’s desk for approval is the Urban Transit Hub Tax Credit bill.

The bill includes a provision desirable to the front office that would allow the new developers at Xanadu (now American Dream) to receive a $200 million tax credit through the state’s Economic Development Authority, which Democratic sponsors of the transit hub bill included to sweeten the pot.

Christie vetoed the transit hub bill earlier this year, but the Democrats don’t see him challenging it this time. There’s an inflexible timeline to have the American Dream project operational when the Super Bowl comes to New Jersey in 2014, which means this bill must be signed to get the EDA credit in place to begin that process now.

There are other bills – one regarding the Vineland Developmental Center and a few environmental bills – that are expected to be scrutinized closely by the front office.

The environmental front is active this week.

On Tuesday, Christie’s Energy Master Plan will have its first of three public hearings, this one in Newark. Among the issues at stake are the futures of nuclear, solar, and other sources of energy, the plans for which have come under fire from the green lobby.

On Wednesday, two policy wonks will debate the merits, or lack thereof, of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, the ten-state “cap-and-trade” carbon emission reduction program that Christie announced earlier he would be removing the state from.

Speaking in favor of the withdrawal will be conservative stalwart Steve Lonegan, whose organization Americans for Prosperity pressed the Statehouse decision-makers to convince the governor that the RGGI program was not successful.

The other side of the coin will be laid out by Sierra Club state director Jeff Tittel, who can be counted among those who believe the program may have needed some regulatory tweaks, but was more effective than no carbon emission reduction program at all.

But the sands are shifting, so find your footing and bring your beach tags: summer in the Statehouse continues.

Weekly Advance: Week of July 25