Table set for budget battle

The final tally on Thursday’s Assembly budget vote is expected to be 42 to 38 in favor.  Or  42 to

The final tally on Thursday’s Assembly budget vote is expected to be 42 to 38 in favor.  Or  42 to 38 against.  Or 44 to 36. Or no comment.

Depending on who you talk to among Democratic caucus members and their staffs, the budget is a no-doubt-about-it pass or in danger of going down in flames.

Such is the nature of budget negotiations in the Gov. Chris Christie era.

As Wednesday dawned there was a spirited but small group in opposition to the budget Democrats expect to introduce tomorrow, but those tasked with a head count seemed decidedly unconcerned about the outcome.

Democrats need 41 votes to pass the budget in the Assembly along with 21 in the Senate.  Senate President Steve Sweeney has nailed down his 21 and according to a Star Ledger report had asked Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver for assurances from members on where they stand for Monday’s vote.

There are some members in both caucuses who say they simply need more information on the budget before making their final decision while others say they can’t vote yes no matter what information they’re given.

The problem, say those opposed, is they believe it gives too much away to Gov. Chris Christie.  The budget Democrats plan to introduce is in large part identical to the one the governor floated in February.  It will rely on the governor’s certified revenue figures, though most if not all Democrats believe them to be nothing more than smoke and mirrors.

Short of about $142 million worth of appropriations Democrats from both houses plan to include, the budget is Christie’s, critics say.

But there is one major – and supporters of the budget say game changing – difference in the budget the  Democrats will introduce.  While it will include money for the much-talked-about tax cut, there will be no legislation with which to enact it.  Democrats plan to wait six months to gauge the state’s revenue picture before agreeing to the cut.

Supporters of the plan believe the budget will give the governor only enough rope from which to dangle.  By relying on his revenues, the thinking goes, they force him to own the budget. And by withholding the tax cut, they believe what they say is the administration’s overly optimistic revenue projection will be revealed for what it is, making the governor himself responsible for the failure to cut taxes.

If the revenues are there, they pass a bipartisan tax cut and everyone wins.  With a Republican governor able to use the considerable powers of his office – line item veto – the budget is probably the best Democrats will get and withholding the tax cut gives them a chance to hammer Christie should the revenue falter.

For his part, Christie has said he will not approve a budget that does not include a tax cut, but it remains to be seen if either side will go to the mattresses and force a government shutdown.

Oliver in part has her reputation at stake over the next five days as a failure to ram the budget through would show her to be powerless to wrangle her caucus.  Less than 41 votes would force Democrats to head to the negotiating table in search of Republican votes, or, as they did two years ago, allow Christie to shepherd his own budget while negotiating for the minimum number of Democratic votes to push it through.

Neither is a palatable option for the majority of the caucus.

Added to the mix is organized labor, who sources said began calling legislators this week to cajole the necessary votes.  According to sources, the CWA is pushing members to vote for the budget as it contains some major Democratic priorities including full restoration of the Earned Income Tax Credit.

The building trades have reportedly begun pushing for the passage of the Transportation Trust Fund that will fund infrastructure projects through the next year. The trades had been worried that the TTF funding would get caught up in budget negotiations and want to ensure money exists to continue to fund jobs for the building trades, which have been decimated by unemployment over the past four years. Table set for budget battle