Corzine sees 'pay to play' can apply to budgets, too

Corzine sees 'pay to play' can apply to budgets, too

Wednesday, July 12, 2006, Star Ledger

By midnight on Thursday, Gov. Jon Corzine had heard enough, so he left the Senate caucus room and asked his treasurer to bargain on his behalf.

This was an ugly bit of business.

Democratic legislators had agreed earlier that day to increase the sales tax. Now, behind closed doors, they wanted payback.

And it came in the form of $330 million in spending programs that were stuffed into the budget during that overnight meeting -- without any hearings, without any real scrutiny.

"I think this system is bizarre," the governor says. "This is not the way to do business."

Still, he gave them most of what they wanted, whacking just $50 million from the total with his line-item veto power. The system may be bizarre, but Corzine played by its rules.

The reason, he says, is that legislators made clear that they would go to war if he used his veto to eliminate more.

"We'd probably still be shut down," Corzine says. "I took as much risk as I could."

Maybe so. But he insisted on this sales tax increase of $1.1 billion to balance his budget. Half the total was then set aside for property tax relief, and half of the remainder was lost, in effect, during this midnight spending spree.

"This means we didn't have to raise the sales tax at all," says Sen. Leonard Lance, the minority leader. "God Almighty, they put $300 million of it into pork. I'm appalled by this."

Calling all this money pork is overboard. It includes money for cancer research, urban libraries and other worthy causes.

But it's funneled overwhelmingly to Democratic districts. And why would legislators slip the money into the budget in such a sneaky way if it could be defended in an open hearing?

Sitting behind his desk in the capitol yesterday, Corzine didn't try to defend it. He promised to reform the process next year.

It would be unfair to paint him as a wild liberal spender. His budget has no significant new programs in it, and some big cuts. Spending is up because he's finally paying overdue bills.

Still, Corzine seems to realize he needs to do much more. And he gave some hints on how he'll try to do that in the coming year.

On pensions, he wants to push new state workers into a 401(k) type of retirement plan starting next year. NJ Transit has already made that move.

"I'm sending a signal," Corzine says.

He didn't ask the state worker unions to make concessions for this budget, he said, because they would have refused. Their contracts don't expire until next year.

"It seems to me I have a much better chance of negotiating with these people by having not put stuff into their face," the governor says. "And I've sent every signal, every signal, that change is in the wind."

He said funding to the Abbott school districts, the urban districts that get the most generous aid, will probably be scaled back.

"We won't be able to hold people completely harmless," Corzine says. "But there's going to have to be some political decisions made to get that done without having a war. This is not easy stuff."

Urban hospitals that can't stay afloat will have to close as well, he says. If the Legislature doesn't move quickly, he'll use an executive order to create a commission to select hospitals for closing, based on the federal government's model in closing military bases.

"We need to figure out which hospitals we need, and which we don't need," he says.

As for the extra spending in this budget, score one for the old bulls in the Legislature. They won this round.

"I don't think it's out of control," says Senate President Richard Codey, who pushed for his own share of this last-minute spending. "It's a tough call. I don't know of any system that's totally fair."

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