Last week's political showdown over the budget in New Jersey had democratic lawmakers fighting dirty and Governor Chris Christie fighting dirtier, and winning big. But both parties are to blame for the decimated budget that's been irresponsibly handed down to New Jersey's taxpayers; taxpayers who are the ultimate losers in a petty political game they helplessly watched unfold from the sidelines.
In a departure from the status quo of budget negotiations, democrats all but ignored the governor's $29.6 billion proposal, instead developing their own $30.6 billion plan unilaterally. And rather than using the budget as a bargaining chip in negotiating other pertinent legislation, democrats waited until after major legislation had been signed to draft their proposal.
Just before assuming any budget talks, Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Essex) and Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-Essex) spent months negotiating a pension and health benefits bill with the governor that was a definite loss for democratic constituents. In doing so, they missed an obvious opportunity to demand concessions from the governor on his frugal spending proposal.
Democrats wrongly assumed that the governor would act in good faith after their cooperation in passing the bill, which forces public employees to spend more on their pensions and health benefits, increases the retirement age, and prohibits unions from collective bargaining on health-benefits terms until 2014.
Their strategy was bold and assumptive, and gave little credence to the governor's spiteful nature. In Christie's book, ignoring his original budget proposal, drafting their own unilaterally, and adding a full billion dollars in spending despite being fully aware (and warned) of his Spartan fundamentalism were strikes one, two and three.
Strike number four--yes, the democrats have already struck out--was their strategic use of deceit and manipulation. They hoped the governor would alienate his constituent base by vetoing their increased spending to suburban school districts; they planned to demonize him for the cuts they knew he would make to their additional billion dollars in spending; and they used complex language with their increases to Medicaid, thinking it would make their changes harder to reverse.
Ultimately, the democrats gravely underestimated Christie's level of vindictiveness and self-involvement, and failed to realize the extent to which their political trickery would anger him, or the lengths he would go to pay them back.
In what can only be a personal attack, the governor vetoed more spending than the democrats added and kept the increased spending to suburban schools (some of which are quite wealthy); in your face democrats! But really, it's in our faces. Republican Senator Kevin O'Toole [R--Essex] said so himself, "If you try to lie or manipulate or out fox this guy, he's coming back at you with a nuclear vengeance."
Senator O'Toole was right; Christie's payback is a nuclear bomb for the working class, poor and underrepresented citizens of the state. He spitefully cut 139M to New Jersey's most cash strapped cities, which was money he had originally included in his own budget proposal. He cut 25M in college tuition grants to the poor, despite professing that higher education would be a top priority when the economy began to recover.
He cut $45 million in tax credits to the working poor, $9 million from New Jersey FamilyCare, $8 million for women's health care, $8 million in AIDs funding, $9 million in mental health services, and $3.5 million in health care for inmates. He cut 75 percent of the funding for the Wynona Lipmann Child Advocacy Center for physically and sexually abused children in Newark, most likely forcing them to close their doors. And his cuts were made unilaterally; no discussion, no negotiation.
On Monday, the democrats attempted to override fifteen of the governor's budget vetoes, and failed. On Tuesday, they will try to override an additional twenty-four vetoes. But with only twenty-four of the twenty-seven votes needed to be successful, democrats will need republican support -- an unlikely occurrence.
To be fair, some democrats have admitted that their strategy was miscalculated, and others claim they thought negotiations between the governor and Sweeney were happening behind closed doors. Regardless, the ball was dropped in a political strategy that chose duplicity and manipulation over honesty and collaboration.
More and more, politics is becoming a battle over ideology and ego rather than a genuine representation of the people. No wonder faith in government is at the lowest it's been in 35 years, at 26 percent according to a poll done by The Washington Post/ABC News in March of this year.
Our country and politicians desperately need to believe that taking the high road, despite its treacherousness, can work; that one can successfully fight fire with something besides fire; and that fairness and integrity can actually lead to change. Until then, the 26% of people who actually believe in government will continue to drop, our politicians will continue their petty games, and the rest of us will feel resigned to accept the dire consequences.