Budget negotiations are rarely easy, but tensions seem even higher this year given the two principal dealmakers — Republican Gov. Chris Christie and Democratic Senate President Stephen Sweeney — are eyeing higher offices and have a labor lawsuit over pension payments hanging over their heads.
Arguments in the lawsuit are set for June 25, just five days before the deadline for adopting a new state budget. That puts the end of the fiscal year in limbo and pushes adoption of the new budget to the wire.
“Before the pension issue, this wasn’t going to be a tough political budget,” said Monmouth University political pollster Patrick Murray.
Hundreds marched in front of the Statehouse on Thursday to remind Christie and Sweeney they expect promises made during a bitter pension reform battle three years ago to be kept. That fight resulted in substantially higher pension and healthcare costs for workers, and legislation that the state would phase in its share of the cost to return the once-flush system to fiscal health.
Christie, a potential 2016 presidential candidate, now says the changes weren’t adequate. He has repeatedly vetoed tax increases and says there’s no Plan B for balancing the budget, as required by the state constitution. Any talk of spending cuts is likely to resonate with conservative voters in early primary states for Christie while hurting Sweeney’s standing among core Democratic groups.
That could leave only unpopular options for Sweeney, a frequent Democratic ally of Christie’s who would like to run for governor in 2017.
“They’re both looking to advance their political futures,” Murray said. “This budget is tied up in that. [However,] Sweeney faces the toughest choices. He’s going to have to hurt somebody.”