Grading Christie on the Budget

Governor Chris Christie gets an A in politics for the state budget he introduced on February 22, but in terms of demonstrating leadership, the Governor’s grade is an incomplete.

Chief executives, whether they are governors, presidents or mayors, have a responsibility to present their legislative bodies with budget proposals that are full and complete. The state budget and its components should stand on their own when they go to the Legislature. Legislators then can accept, reject and alter line items before sending the document back to the Governor for action.

This is not the scenario Governor Christie laid out this year. Instead of presenting the Legislature with a full and complete budget, he is engaging in a game of Let’s Make A Deal.

For example, the Governor said the budget will make it possible for the state to double property tax rebates, but only if the Legislature agrees to increase the amount of money state employees pay for health benefits.

Likewise, Christie said he would make an immediate $500 million contribution to the state pension fund, but only if the Legislature approves controversial changes to the pension system, such as rolling back a nine percent increase in pension benefits that was enacted in 2001, raising the retirement age for state workers from 62 to 65, and requiring that they pay more into the system.

Neither of these challenges will be easy lifts for legislators. It’s a bit like the Wizard of Oz telling Dorothy he will get her back home to Kansas, but only if she manages to bring him the broomstick of the Wicked Witch of the West.

This is precisely why – from a purely political perspective – Christie’s budget proposal is a thing of beauty. Although Democrats hold majorities in both the state Senate and Assembly, the Republican governor has backed them into a very tight corner.

If Democrats move forward on either of Christie’s challenges, they will anger their base, which includes state employee labor unions and their members, as well as labor groups in general. Without their usual support from labor unions and their members, Democrats could suffer at the polls in November when all 120 seats in the state Legislature are up for election.

On the other hand, if Democrats decide not to act on the Governor’s challenges, they become the scapegoats for the state’s failures to reduce property taxes and make a badly needed payment to New Jersey’s underfunded pension system.

Inaction by the Democratic Legislature also would provide Christie and Republican candidates with effective talking points for the fall campaign. I can almost hear the Governor out on the campaign trail telling voters something along the lines of: “I wanted to lower your property taxes and start shoring up the pension fund. I did my part, but the Democrats in the Legislature refused to do theirs. That’s why we need you to elect candidates A, B and C in this district.”

At this point, the best thing Democrats have going for themselves is time. The June 30 budget deadline still is four months away. That gives them plenty of time to craft a strategy to back themselves out of the corner the Governor has painted them into.

Christie may not be expecting Democrats to meet his challenges, much like the wizard never expected Dorothy to bring back the wicked witch’s broomstick. In the movie, Dorothy and her friends also discovered that the wizard was not really a wizard at all. He was just a man whose strong words and admonitions were more rhetoric than reality. I am sure there are some who would say that is an apt description of our Governor, and that there also others who would disagree vehemently with that characterization.

Whether Democrats or Republicans score more political points from this year’s budget process remains to be seen. It will be several more months before we know which party fares better. After all, balancing a state budget is not as easy as closing your eyes, tapping your heels together three times, and making a wish that comes true.

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