Saturday, July 08, 2006

State Budget - Ledger - Analysis: Corzine vs. Roberts

Published in the Star-Ledger, Sunday, July 2, 2006

At center of impasse, a battle of two strong wills

Star-Ledger Staff

One is a former bond trader who climbed to the top of Wall Street amid high-stakes deals be fore spending his way into the governor's office. The other is a political warrior who spent three decades battling his way up from small-time campaigns to the third most powerful position in state government.

Now it boils down to who blinks first.

Behind the first state government shutdown in New Jersey history there are policy and political differences over whether the state should increase the sales tax. But it's also a test of wills between Gov. Jon Corzine and Assembly Speaker Joseph Roberts, two Democrats who may be putting their political futures on the line in an unprecedented Statehouse standoff.

"It's brinkmanship. It's nuclear conflict without the warheads. You get into an impasse like this and it's important to demonstrate your toughness, resolve and fortitude," said Ross Baker, a Rutgers University political science professor. And, he added, "These two guys are not necessarily conciliators by nature."

For both men, risk-takers who have a relationship that has run hot and cold, it could be a matter of political survival.

Corzine, the Trenton outsider who was elected last year to clean up a fiscal and political mess in Trenton, says an unpopular sales tax increase is necessary to get the state's fiscal house in order before tackling New Jersey's property tax crisis this summer.

He's looked to another CEO turned politician -- New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg -- as a role model. Bloomberg made unpopular decisions such as raising property taxes early in his term, but eventually was credited with turning his city around and ultimately earned re-election.

"This was a defining moment for Governor Corzine," said Senate Majority Leader Bernard Kenny Jr. (D-Hudson). "The governor is exer cising his prerogative as chief executive and he's demonstrating courage and leadership. I think he be came the governor this week."

Roberts, a 19-year Statehouse veteran who captured the speaker's job last year after years of fighting for it, wants to use a payroll tax hike, cuts and other fiscal maneuvers to balance the budget. He says a sales tax increase -- if enacted at all -- is unacceptable unless "every single, solitary penny" is dedicated to reducing property taxes.

He finally won the speaker's job after leading the Democrats as they expanded their majority to 49-to-31 last year. But key swing districts are in South Jersey, and a tax revolt could endanger vulnerable Democrats allied to Roberts -- which could jeopardize his position as speaker.

"He thinks it's worth it," U.S. Rep. Robert Andrews (D-1st), a Roberts ally, said of the speaker's gamble. "Joe Roberts sincerely be lieves the sales tax is a bad idea. Obviously there's a political consequence. Joe thinks the majority is at risk."

Throughout his career, Roberts has been closely aligned with George Norcross III, a friend, former business partner and Camden County's Democratic power broker. Roberts said he has conferred with Norcross, a skilled political tactician, on this latest skirmish.

"We talk a lot," he said.

Roberts was in the Legislature when his political mentor, Gov. Jim Florio, raised taxes by $2.8 billion, triggering a tax revolt and costing Democrats control of Trenton for more than a decade. With polls showing voters oppose the sales tax hike by nearly 2-to-1, Roberts says he is determined not to make the same mistake.

When Corzine first entered politics six years ago, he and Roberts were adversaries. That's because Corzine faced Florio in a bitter Democratic primary during which he criticized the former governor for raising the sales tax.

But the two eventually became allies as Corzine poured nearly $1 million into Norcross' political action committee. Just seven months ago, Corzine and Roberts stood on a stage on Election Night, hoisting their joined fists in the air in a mo ment of shared triumph.

Earlier last year, Roberts and Norcross helped solidify South Jersey support for Corzine to keep then-Gov. Richard Codey out of the Democratic primary.

During the campaign, however, secretly recorded tapes from a state corruption investigation emerged that exposed Norcross' blunt, take-no-prisoners political style and his boast that he held sway over Corzine. Corzine quickly distanced himself from Norcross and his "pressure politics."

Now, Corzine is casting the shutdown as a battle between his desire to make tough decisions and the politics of Trenton insiders who wrecked New Jersey's finances.

"I am prepared to compromise and I have," he said yesterday. "But there will not be a continuation of the practices of the past that leave New Jersey practically in the same (fiscal) shape as the Ka trina- ravaged Gulf states."

Roberts has sought to cast Cor zine, the former Goldman Sachs CEO, as someone indifferent to the public, saying he's been "intractable" on the sales tax.

"The people of this state are paying a very dear price for his singular focus on the sales tax as the only way to balance the budget," he said.

No matter the outcome, the political repercussions may last.

Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo, who was elected with Roberts' help but is now in Cor zine's corner, said there is speculation among Democrats that the political rupture could lead to a coup to replace Roberts as speaker. Di Vincenzo said the party is in the midst of a civil war.

"To me , it shouldn't come down to a north-south thing, but it appears that it is," he said.

Roberts and his allies say the caucus would never turn on him for seeking to protect their own political interests.

"Joe will emerge from this stronger than when he went in," said Andrews.

Both men insist their differences are not personal and say that despite their tough public talk, their meetings are cordial.

But Baker questioned how well they will be able to work together, especially as Democrats this summer seek to tackle property tax reform, which could decide the fate of the party's control of Trenton.

"These guys are involved in hand-to-hand combat," he said, "and the scars could be very long- lasting."

Staff writers Josh Margolin and Joe Donohue contributed to this report.

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. Plainfield Today, Plainfield Stuff and Clippings have no affiliation whatsoever with the originator of these articles nor are Plainfield Today, Plainfield Stuff or Clippings endorsed or sponsored by the originator.)

Blog Archive

About Me

Plainfield resident since 1983. Retired as the city's Public Information Officer in 2006; prior to that Community Programs Coordinator for the Plainfield Public Library. Founding member and past president of: Faith, Bricks & Mortar; Residents Supporting Victorian Plainfield; and PCO (the outreach nonprofit of Grace Episcopal Church). Supporter of the Library, Symphony and Historic Society as well as other community groups, and active in Democratic politics.