The Democrats, for their part, found themselves with nothing to do but stall. They’d arranged a series of thematically disjointed budget hearings in which a number of sympathetic interest groups were trotted before committees to recount tales of woe about how the budget would hurt them. But as May gave way to June and the deadline to pass a budget neared, they had yet to offer a real alternative.
“There were divisions everywhere,” says Assemblyman Webber. “Democrats were divided between the senate and the assembly, divisions within the senate and the assembly — some geographic, some having to do with their core constituencies. They couldn’t agree on a message. At the end of the day the only thing they could come to some agreement on is ‘Let’s raise taxes and spend more money.’ And then they fought over who should be the beneficiary of our newfound largesse.”
So long did the Democrats delay that, with barely a week until the vote, senate minority leader Thomas Kean Jr. had to direct the state’s nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services to prepare the Christie budget under Republican sponsorship. In an unprecedented move, the Democrats let it happen.
“I don’t see how that can be interpreted as anything but simply handing away control of the most important bill this legislature passes on an annual basis,” Kean says. “I’ve never known it to happen in the history of New Jersey — where the minority party has carried the ball on the budget.”
The majority had agreed to supply the bare minimum votes required to assure passage of the budget, but they were content to let Christie and the Republicans do the heavy lifting.
“De facto, they had abdicated their leadership to the governor in March, when the governor introduced his budget,” says Webber. “But de jure, they abdicated their leadership in June, by letting us go and pass it.”
A political cartoon published by the Star Ledger’s Drew Sheneman on June 8 captured the mood in Trenton at the time. It showed Christie and a generic Democratic leader in opposite corners of a boxing ring, a white towel arcing through the air between them. The caption read: “It’s customary to wait for the fight to begin before you throw in the towel.”
A near-pristine version of Christie’s budget passed at 1:13 a.m. on June 29, less than 24 hours before the constitutional deadline. It followed a long night of debate that was less the Democrats’ Waterloo than their Battle of New Orleans, coming long after the war had ended. Christie signed it twelve hours later in a firehouse in South River, a Central Jersey suburb in heavily Democratic Middlesex County, before a small crowd of boosters. Outside, a scant contingent of protesters waved signs.
But as significant as his early victories have been, Christie must now turn to pushing the structural reforms that will institutionalize his vision of leaner, meaner state government. He knows this second act will be much harder to pull off than his first.
Even as he was fighting the budget battle, the governor was barnstorming the state to talk up perhaps the most significant of these reforms: his “Cap 2.5” initiative, which would constitutionally limit the ability of municipalities to raise property taxes.