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7-5-11 Education and Related Issues in the News

Statehouse Bureau, nj.com - Officials: Budget a mess of politics

By Ginger Gibson/Statehouse BureauThe Star-Ledger

TRENTON — For months, it was one of the quietest budget seasons Trenton has ever seen.

As the $30.6 billion spending bill moved through the Legislature, Democrats insisted they were serious about their spending and weren’t expecting Gov. Chris Christie to cut funding for the vulnerable constituents they were sending more money to.

"This isn’t a gimmick or a game at all," Senate Budget Committee Chairman Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen) said the day the Senate passed the budget.

Behind closed doors, there was a battle brewing. In a meeting last week with Republicans, Sarlo admitted it was a "political budget," according to attendees at the meeting. Sarlo denies ever saying that.

But from interviews with lawmakers and other Trenton politicians, a picture emerges of a weeklong political theater at its pinnacle. There was stagecraft on both sides, the various sources said, and some strategic serious mistakes by the Democrats who continue to underestimate the governor. It appeared Democrats, these sources say, had a plan: Blast Christie for every cut and claim victory for everything that he left in place. They thought they had him in a box.

It all blew up when Christie responded in a way they never expected. He cut deeper than what they added, about $900 million total, taking money away from some of the vulnerable and valued constituents that Democrats normally court. And he did it with a scolding lecture on spending restraint.

The Democrats, some whom had just worked to help Christie force public workers to pay for more of their pension benefits, responded in fury. Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) called Christie a "bastard" and "cruel man" and many other spicy things, which, when it comes to public denunciations of a Jersey governor might even stand out as raising the bar.

"If you try to lie or manipulate or outfox this guy, he’s coming back at you with a nuclear vengeance," said Sen. Kevin O’Toole (R-Essex). But in the end, both sides got some political fodder: a formula for demonizing each other as the election season heats up.

Some lawmakers and officials spoke on the record for this story, others, wary of retaliation, asked for anonymity.

From the beginning, this budget was not drafted in the usual Trenton way, and in retrospect some Democrats think they may have missed opportunities to get some of what they wanted. In most years, the governor submits a budget and then the haggling starts, one side gives a little and the other makes concessions. The budget becomes a bargaining chip during every other negotiation.

That didn’t happen this time.

Unlike years past, leaders in Trenton spent only a week working on the budget, a process that included almost no communication between legislative Democrats and the governor.

Christie, Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Shelia Oliver (D-Essex) spent months hammering out a deal to pass legislation to force public employees to pay more for health and pension benefits.

When the bill passed the Legislature on June 23, they finally took up the job of hammering out the state’s roughly $30 billion budget.

There were no negotiations. No deals were brokered. Just tersely worded news releases from both sides.

Democrats couldn’t agree on how to approach the budget, said Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D-Union). He said some supported authoring their own budget while others wanted to take a list of requests to the governor and try to work out a deal.

"There were others who thought that we could get stuff by negotiating with the governor," Lesniak said. "I felt that our ability to do what we believe is right is not just to get stuff for our districts."

Ultimately, the Democrats decided to get behind their own budget. It added a couple extra hundred million for suburban schools, $50 million for cops in urban areas and reversed his cuts to Medicaid programs for the state’s working poor.

Democrats expected Christie to remove big chunks of spending and leave a few pieces that they wanted, like the money for police in crime-plagued areas. Democrats had also attempted to write the budget using complicated language in a way that made it difficult to undo their changes to Medicaid.

Before the budget even made it to Christie’s desk, Democrats were already planning to come back this week and vote to override his vetoes. The override votes, which have virtually no chance of being successful, would force Republican lawmakers to vote against each individual reduction. With every lawmaker up for re-election in November, the campaign attack ads would write themselves.

Sweeney insisted the budget not be the product of negotiations, sources familiar with caucus discussions said.

Even during the weeks of heated negotiations on the pension and health benefits bill, the topic of the budget didn’t become a bargaining chip, the governor said.

Lesniak called it a "miscalculation" for Democrats to not include the budget in negotiations.

Many Democrats said they assumed Sweeney was talking about the budget privately with Christie, laying the groundwork for compromises. In the end, they were surprised to learn he wasn’t kidding when he insisted he wasn’t, sources confirmed.

The day the Legislature passed the Democratic budget, Christie pulled Republican legislative leaders and staff into his office. Around two folded tables with white table clothes and boxes of pizza, they talked about how to respond, those with knowledge of the meeting said.

Democratic staffers down the hall waited nervously; what would the governor do? He could call their bluff and veto the whole budget, leading to a standoff and shutting down government. Christie said later at a news conference to announce his line-item vetoes that they had made no plans to shut down government but had seriously considered a total veto.

When Christie handed down his emaciated budget that chopped $900 million out using the line-item veto, Democrats were shocked by how deep he cut.

"I think we’re all stunned that he would be so cruel and mean-spirited," Lesniak said.

Some Democrats now admit they expected the governor to make some reductions but that they never expected him to go that far.

Christie cut $139 million in aid to the state’s most financially strapped cities, money he had originally included in his own budget. He cut $25 million from college tuition grants for the poor, a move that seems to counter his oft-repeated position that higher-education is a priority once the economy starts to recover. He cut staff salaries in the Senate and Assembly, an unprecedented move for a governor to go after legislative staff. He cut $250,000 out of the Office of Legislative Services, a division fully funded in the budget he presented in February but that drew his ire in the interim by disagreeing with his revenue estimates.

"We were $289 million apart," Sarlo said. "He went and cut things that we didn’t touch. It was very vindictive and mean-spirited."

Democrats added money and cut other funds that were incompatible, like reducing oversight funding for aid to municipalities, said Assemblyman Declan O’Scanlon (R-Monmouth), who is the ranking Republican member of the Assembly Budget Committee. Christie cut aid to the state’s poorest cities because the oversight office had been cut by Democrats, O’Scanlon said.

"These things were designed to bait the governor," he said. "The budget was designed to be political from the start. This budget was designed for the sound bites that you’re hearing now, that the governor is a cruel and insensitive human being."

Democrats counter that the budget isn’t about their talking points for this year’s legislative elections, but about Christie garnering more credentials for a presidential run.

"This, to me, sends to a message that he’s running for president because he’ll never get re-elected in New Jersey with this kind of policy," Sen. Barbara Buono (D-Middlesex) said.

Democrats had included increased money for suburban schools in an effort to force the veto and upset Republican constituencies. But instead of cutting the school money, Christie left it and cut elsewhere, Kyrillos said.

"There are some things that he would have liked to have kept intact, but he decided otherwise because the Democrats gave him the opportunity to be able to make the decision to spend more money on suburban school aid," Kyrillos said. "Instead, opting for a one- or two-day political statement, they completely lost control over items they say are priorities for them."

In the end, Republicans say it was just a poorly calculated decision by the Democrats.

"They played chicken with the wrong guy," said O’Scanlon.

 

The Record - Winners, losers in final N.J. budget

Sunday, July 3, 2011 Last updated: Sunday July 3, 2011, 9:21 AM By John Reitmeyerstate House Bureau

Governor Christie, by cutting nearly $1 billion from the budget crafted by Democrats and blocking a proposed tax increase, solidified his reputation as a fiscal watchdog last week.

And legislative Democrats, by forcing the governor and other Republicans to oppose many popular spending items, reinforced the narrative that Christie and the state GOP care more about millionaires than the middle class.

Taxpayers, meanwhile, will see their school districts get more state aid and many will also receive more property tax relief under the new, $29.7 billion state spending plan enacted by Christie.

Here's a closer look at some of the winners and losers in the new budget, which is in effect until June 30, 2012.

Winners

Property owners: After losing rebate checks in 2010, and getting credits between $202 and $270 earlier this year, residential property owners will get more direct relief in the new budget. Though still less than the $1,000 rebate checks of prior years, the Homestead credit will go up to $404 for property owners making up to $75,000 annually, and $540 for senior and disabled property owners with up to $150,000 incomes. Enrollment into the "senior freeze" program, which reimburses long-time New Jersey residents living in the same home for property tax hikes, also reopens.

School districts: Aid to school districts increased by $850 million, reversing last year's $820 million cut. Included in the increase is about $450 million for the poorest districts, and another $400 million to be spread around to other schools in the state.

Millionaires: A bill that wasn't technically part of the state budget, but moved along with it, would have hiked the tax rate on income over $1 million from 8.97 percent to 10.75 percent. Christie vetoed the millionaire's tax increase on Thursday, maintaining the lower rate for about 16,000 millionaires.

Businesses: The budget includes $180 million in business tax cuts, and several other items that are designed to help the business community and create jobs during a time of high unemployment.

Legislative Democrats: By crafting their own budget this year, the Democrats forced the governor to add more money for education than the $250 million he originally proposed. And after delivering the votes that cut school aid last year, they won a victory on education this year that they can promote on the campaign trail in November when all 120 legislative seats are up for grabs. The Democrats also forced Christie and Republicans to oppose a millionaire's tax favored by 65 percent of the state, according to recent polls.

Christie: The governor introduced a $29.4 billion spending plan in February, and ended up approving a very similar $29.7 billion budget in June. The new budget includes the property tax relief and business tax cuts Christie promoted in his budget address. And by using the line-item veto, Christie also reinforced his narrative that he needs to be in Trenton to check the prolific spending habits of the Democrats who control the Legislature.

July Fourth vacationers: The governor could have vetoed the Democrats' budget outright and forced lawmakers to come back to Trenton to craft a new spending plan. That would likely have taken the budget process well beyond the July 1 deadline for a balanced budget that is spelled out in the state constitution — meaning a state shutdown that surely would have disrupted holiday vacation plans.

Losers

Low-income workers: The Democrats' budget included funds to restore a cut in the earned income tax credit for which many low-income workers qualify. Christie's final version of the budget took out the Democrats' restoration, meaning the cut remains intact, costing the state's poorest wage earners a collective $45 million in a still-difficult economy.

School districts: While local schools will get $850 million more than they received in state aid last year, the Democrats had sought to increase school funding by $1.1 billion in their budget. And with revenue from the millionaire's tax, the Democrats would have allocated more than $1.6 billion for education, boosting funding in even the richest suburban districts.

Cities: Line-item vetoes took away $50 million in public safety grants for urban areas; redirected $50 million from designated Urban Enterprise Zones; and removed $140 million in emergency municipal aid.

Medicaid recipients: Christie's budget toughens eligibility requirements for Medicaid funding, something Democrats tried to block.

Bipartisanship: Democratic legislative leaders worked with the governor to enact public employee benefits reforms earlier in the week in a much-promoted bipartisan effort. But Christie did not negotiate a compromise with the Democrats on their budget and instead went out of his way to criticize the spending plan they came up with as "unrealistic" and "fantasy budgeting." Senate President Stephen Sweeney — the Gloucester County Democrat who bucked party members to back the benefits reforms — also didn't hold back on his questioning of the governor's vetoes, calling his cuts "cruel and mean-spirited."

E-mail: reitmeyer@northjersey.com

 

Njpressmedia.com, The Daily Journal - Slashed funds for poor leave Dems sore

Jul 5, 2011 by Jason Method

TRENTON-- Gov. Chris Christie says the state Legislature shouldn't try to play Santa Claus with the $29.7 billion state budget. Democrats retort that doesn't mean the governor has to play Scrooge.

Christie's series of line-item vetoes last week hit social programs and aid for low- and middle-income communities the hardest. They even included orphans-and-widow items, such as a treatment center for abused kids.

The Democratic legislative leaders, just days after being effusively praised by the Republican governor for their bipartisan cooperation in passing pension and benefit reform, were outraged.

"We're not talking about political hacks here. We're not talking about pork spending," Assembly Speaker Sheila Y. Oliver, D-Essex, said about the treatment center cut. "We're not talking about special interests. We're talking about abused children."

State Senate President Stephen M. Sweeney, D-3, said it would be much harder to work with Christie in the future. He pointed particularly at the $46.5 million taken from Tuition Aid Grants, a college aid program for students from low-income families. The cut was more than double the $21.3 million Democrats had added to the program.

"This is the most disappointing day I've had as a legislator," Sweeney said. "To prove a point, (Christie) had decided to hurt people. ... When you see the TAG cut, that shows where he's headed."

Partisan budget dustups are de rigueur in Trenton, but this year's line-item vetoes by Christie were interpreted as a reaction to Democrats or others, such as the state Supreme Court, with whom Christie has battled.

Cuts included:

• $537,000 from the Wynona M. Lipman Child Advocacy Center in Newark for abused children.

• A cut of some $10 million from Legal Services, which provides attorneys for low-income people, after Democrats had added $5 million to the program. Christie also cut $200,000 from a Seton Hall law program for the poor.

• $139 million from transitional aid to cities such as Bridgeton, Asbury Park, Jersey City and Trenton. The action leaves only $10 million for such aid, even though some $13 million has been awarded. Some of the cities will share $450 million more in additional school aid because of a state Supreme Court order in May.

A Christie spokesman last week complained Democrats had removed funding for a watchdog to keep tabs on the program. "Could it be to allow waste, fraud and abuse to return, allowing Democratically controlled cities to hire political hacks?" spokesman Michael Drewniak asked.

Christie had taken umbrage at many of the Democrats' maneuvers, such as when they estimated a $300 million savings from employee benefit reform, even though the savings from the reforms eventually approved were far less than Christie had proposed.

"It was to pay back their base and embarrass me," Christie said in a news conference Thursday where he explained his vetoes. "Now they'll play the old politics of this building. They still don't get me. I don't care. This is the right thing."

Patrick Murray of the Monmouth University Polling Institute said Christie's line-item vetoes smacked of tit-for-tat politics.

"This was Chris Christie saying, if you want to play games, game on," Murray said. "There were things cut from this budget that did not even affect the bottom line. He did exact some revenge."

Murray said he thought Christie was unhappy Democrats passed an income tax surcharge on millionaires that would have raised some $600 million and corresponding legislation that would have sent $500 million to suburban school districts.

Put in the position of having to veto a tax that would have sent money back to Republican areas, Christie likely reacted, Murray said.

"It will make it difficult to work with (Democrats) again going forward," Murray said. "This will snowball."

Not that Christie got all he wanted. The governor's moves to limit the senior citizen property tax relief program and the FamilyCare health insurance program were eliminated by the Democrats.

 

Star Ledger, The Record - Fate of school vouchers, N.J. wineries uncertain after bills died quietly behind the scenes

Published: Tuesday, July 05, 2011, 6:00 AM

By Chris Megerian/Statehouse BureauThe Star-Ledger

TRENTON — New Jersey lawmakers raced for the Statehouse exits Wednesday night after passing a state budget plan, trailing dozens of press releases trumpeting their accomplishments as they prepared for their traditional summer break.

But not every issue was neatly wrapped up at the last minute. Even though piles of bills were passed and paraded in the sunlight, others died quietly behind the scenes, in the shadows.

The fate of two such bills, one addressing school vouchers and the other the future of the state's wineries, shows as much about the Statehouse as the bills that went on to become law.

Both issues, largely unnoticed as battles over the budget and public worker benefits hogged the spotlight, ground to a halt after stalling in the Assembly.

Interviews show how the best-laid plans — complete with major endorsements, passionate speeches and backroom arm-twisting — can falter on Trenton's shifting political battleground. That's especially true as lawmakers wrestle over the state budget, a time to cut last-minute deals and settle old scores.

"It’s the best theater in town," said Steven Some, a veteran lobbyist who represents a winery. "When you’re pushing an issue, you’re very much like the director of the play."

The episodes involving vouchers and wineries show how Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-Essex) has struggled to balance competing relationships with the power brokers that greased her political rise and the restless Democrats within her own caucus. And they reveal how controversial cuts to public worker benefits cast a long shadow on the Statehouse, altering the political landscape and shifting unrelated issues off track.

SCHOOL VOUCHERS

The Opportunity Scholarship Act, which would give corporations tax credits if they donated to a school voucher program, had all the hallmarks of a sure thing. It boasted bipartisan support, and advocates agreed to downsize the proposal to make it palatable for some wary Democrats.

"It looked like it was going to get done," said Derrell Bradford, a supporter and executive director for the nonprofit Better Education for Kids.

But in Trenton, nothing is ever a sure thing, and an intense lobbying effort to push the bill through the Assembly faltered just over a week ago.

"I’m extremely disappointed," said George Norcross, the South Jersey power broker. "This bill certainly would have provided an opportunity for children and parents who are reaching out for change."

Also backing the bill were Essex County Executive Joseph N. DiVincenzo Jr. and Gov. Chris Christie, and Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) had agreed to post it for a vote despite his own misgivings.

But the plan was missing a critical piece: Oliver. Even though she promised Norcross and DiVincenzo — who played key roles in the sweeping coup that made her the Assembly speaker — she would post the bill, she ended up backing out, according to three sources who requested anonymity to discuss private deliberations.

Sources said Oliver was worried about angering members of her caucus who did not support vouchers. It had been about a week since she backed cuts to public worker benefits, leaving some Democrats feeling betrayed. Pushing forward on vouchers could further fracture the party.

"After the pension bill, the speaker and others said there was so much tension and so much acrimony in the Democratic caucus, they thought it would be too much to bring up the Opportunity Scholarship Act," said Rev. Reginald Jackson, head of the Black Ministers Council and a voucher supporter.

Oliver said she still had doubts about the proposal, saying, "Given the shape it’s in, it’s not something I can support."

She declined to discuss private conversations but said, "We don’t conduct business by promising people what is going to happen."

Supporters said they had the votes to get the bill passed but couldn’t get it posted in the Assembly. Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D-Union), the bill’s sponsor, said the issue is now "on life support."

Bradford said advocates will try again to pass the bill after the November election.

"It is unfortunate that pension and benefit reform was more important than education reform," he said. "This is a huge disappointment."

MAIL-ORDER WINE

For New Jersey’s wineries, the issue is a ticking time bomb. A federal judge recently declared unconstitutional a state law allowing wineries to sell their wares directly to stores or in on-site tasting rooms.

"Without direct access to the consumer, and without access to sell our wines directly to liquor stores, most wineries in New Jersey will go out of business," said Bob Clark, owner of Chestnut Run Farm, a Salem County winery that produces specialty Asian pear wine.

But a bill to remedy the situation died on the vine Wednesday, the same day lawmakers passed a budget plan. Sources said the issue became a tug of war between Sweeney and Assembly Majority Leader Joseph Cryan (D-Union), who have feuded over cuts to public worker benefits.

Both want to keep tasting rooms open, but Sweeney also wants to allow wineries to ship their wine directly to consumers’ homes. Cryan, whom advocates accuse of being in the liquor lobby’s pocket, wants wineries to work through distributors.

So last week Sweeney committed a legislative faux paux: he gutted Cryan’s bill without his permission, replaced it with his own and pushed it through the Senate. Then he punted it back to the Assembly Wednesday night.

After the Senate session ended that night, Sweeney met in his office with Cryan and Oliver. Once again, Oliver had to make the final call on what to do, and in a heated exchange the Senate president asked her to defy Cryan and post his modified version of the bill, according to three sources with knowledge of the meeting.

Oliver and Cryan have had a frosty relationship that soured further when she pushed cuts to public worker benefits that he bitterly opposed. But that night she sided with Cryan and rebuffed Sweeney, the sources said.

Cryan changed the bill back to his liking, and it now resides in legislative limbo. Like the voucher proposal, advocates expect it to lie dormant until after the November election.

Oliver called the issue a "work in progress." In the meantime, winery tasting rooms risk being shut down.

Clark, for one, walked away from the Statehouse disappointed with how the state does business.

"I find it deeply troubling that when we’re dealing with an issue of this magnitude, lawmakers did not move forward," he said. "The Assembly is willing to put an entire industry in jeopardy."

Matt Friedman contributed to this report

 


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