Josh Goodman is a former staff writer for GOVERNING..E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
I'm in New Jersey right now working on a story about Gov. Chris Christie. While you'll have to wait until August to read it, I can't resist commenting on Democratic legislators' unusual approach to Christie's budget.
New Jersey faces one of the nation's worst budget shortfalls. The shortfall was around $11 billion on a budget that will end up coming in at less than $30 billion. As a result, Christie has been forced to propose dramatic budget cuts immediately. Even Christie, who relishes the idea of cutting government, acknowledges that some of the cuts are pretty painful.
Democrats want to alleviate some of the cuts by extending a higher income tax rate that was put into place for millionaires last year. Christie is against any income tax increases. He vetoed the millionaire's tax when it reached his desk.
The budget can't pass without majority support in the legislature. It can't pass without the governor's signature, unless the legislature musters a veto-proof majority, something the Democrats don't have. With the start of the fiscal year coming July 1, you have all the makings of a standoff.
The thing is, though, everyone says there won't be a standoff. Unlike in 2006, Gov. Jon Corzine's first year in office, the government isn't going to shutdown. The budget deal will get done.
That on its own isn't remarkable. While many states are prone to pass their budgets late, most budgets are on time (and, regardless, many states find ways to avoid government shutdowns when the budget is late). What's unusual is how the New Jersey budget deal is going to get done: With Democrats, more or less, giving up.
The standard way that a budget deal gets done is that the two sides bluster, demand concessions and ultimately compromise. Sometimes one side gets more of what it wants than the other, but ultimately there's some kind of deal.
While Democrats in New Jersey may make slight changes to the budget Christie proposed, they're going to leave it basically intact with all of the cuts they hate -- things like reductions in the earned income tax credit, cuts to school breakfast and lunch programs and reductions in a variety of other safety net programs. But, they're not going to vote for it.
At least, most of them won't. Unless something changes (always possible), Democrats are going to supply Republicans with just enough votes for the budget to pass with unified Republican support. In fact, Democrats may not be the ones to introduce the budgets themselves. They may let (make?) a Republican do it. Having the minority party introduce the budget would be quite strange and perhaps unprecedented in New Jersey.
Why are Democrats doing this? Partisans on each side offer very different answers.
Republicans say that Democrats are letting Christie's budget become law because they know they'd lose a showdown. Christie's been clear from the beginning on his stand against a millionaire's tax increase. If Democrats ignored that and sparked a confrontation, they'd get the blame for shutting down the government. Usually in government shutdowns the executive wins. Even when the executive doesn't win, almost always the legislature loses.
What's more, Republicans say that Democrats are accepting Christie's budget because privately they realize the cuts are necessary. The millionaire's tax only would bring in perhaps $600 million. The vast majority of the budget cuts still would have to take place.
Democrats, though, believe Christie and the Republicans have overplayed their hand. When a budget goes into effect that lowers the tax rate for the wealthy compared to the previous year and yet slashes popular programs, the governor and Republican legislators will be the ones to blame. And, the Democrats intend to blame them.
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