Gov. Chris Christie had the last word on state spending last Friday, vetoing most of the new expenditures the Democrats had sought within the budget and in separate bills.
And then he went further, calling the Legislature back for a command performance, a special summer session on Monday to try to bully them into the tax cut he has been seeking all year.
Rarely, when there is divided government, does the theater that is the process of enacting a state budget in New Jersey disappoint.
And that’s what all of this is, political theater.
Because the Democrats are not going to pass Christie’s 10 percent across-the-board tax cut proposal as it gives more money back to the wealthy than to the poor and middle class. And there’s no way Christie is going to approve the Democrats’ plan to revitalize the Homestead Rebate program as they want to pay for it with a higher income tax on millionaires.
So all that’s left is the posturing.
The November elections play a role in this. The Republicans hope Christie’s promised statewide summer tour telling people that the “Corzine Democrats” won’t give them tax relief will help boost state Sen. Joe Kyrillos (R-Monmouth) in his effort to unseat U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-Hudson).
Depending on what happens with the economy over the next few months, bashing the Democrats while also invoking the name of the party’s last governor, who no one seemed to like very much, could also hurt President Barack Obama and help Christie’s ally Mitt Romney.
And it’s in the Democrats’ best interests not to give Christie a tax cut he can use in campaigning for re-election next year.
Meanwhile, there were many casualties of the governor’s red pen.
Christie line-item vetoed from the $31.7 billion budget some or all of the money added by Democrats for nursing homes, medical day care, legal services, transitional aid to municipalities and Educational Opportunity Fund grants for disadvantaged students.
The governor’s budget vetoes were significantly less than the amount he cut last year. But this year, the Democrats gave him so many other spending bills to nix.
And nix them he did.
Christie vetoed Democrats’ attempt at restoring the $7.5 million for women’s health clinics that he had cut from the 2012 fiscal year budget. He also said no to $50 million to restore the Earned Income Tax Credit to its pre-Christie level. The tax credit piggybacks off the federal credit, benefiting those with low incomes who work.
The largest spending he vetoed was $330 million in aid to municipalities. The New Jersey State League of Municipalities had lobbied hard to get the state to restore energy taxes paid to the state that it says rightfully belong to communities. The Democrats’ bill would have restored the aid to 2008 levels, returning the money to municipalities over a five-year period. That aid would have to have been used for property tax relief.
Christie’s budget does, however, include nearly $350 million in business tax cuts.
There’s no doubt the Democrats had tried to advance a number of programs to help not only the needy, but all property taxpayers. But how do you pay for them, when the Legislature’s own nonpartisan office says the budget is short $1.4 billion even as the year is just beginning?
Municipalities argue the energy receipts are rightfully, legally, theirs and if that is true then the state should cut the budget elsewhere to make good.
The Democrats have offered to pay for their biggest tax cut—the Homestead Rebate restoration—through the higher income tax on the wealthiest residents. Christie has not yet dealt with those bills but has already vetoed a millionaire’s tax twice before.
Given the uncertainty about revenues in the budget, it would be irresponsible to enact a tax cut without a new, specified revenue source.
But it makes for good theater. And the spotlights will be blazing for Christie’s message to the special session. Pull up a chair, watch, and decide for yourself whether to applaud, boo or ask for your money back.
Colleen O'Dea is a writer, editor, researcher, data analyst, web page designer and mapper with nearly three decades in the news business. Her column appears weekly.