Friday, July 07, 2006

State Budget - Ledger - Corzine clout routs Roberts

Published by The Star-Ledger, Friday, July 7, 2006

Corzine's clout routs Roberts' rebellion

Star-Ledger Staff

Hundreds of angry, out-of-work casino employees -- some brandishing bullhorns -- railed against Assembly Speaker Joe Roberts outside the Statehouse.

Gov. Jon Corzine was signaling he was ready to dig into his personal fortune to air campaign-style television ads making the veteran South Jersey Democrat out to be the villain behind the first state government shutdown in New Jersey's history.

And a late night committee meeting convened for one last stand backfired and left Roberts standing virtually alone.

In less than 24 hours from Wednesday evening to yesterday afternoon, the Speaker's insurrection against the governor ended as a wall of political pressure came down on his shoulders. The kind of pressure only a governor can bring to bear.

"It just took a while for the governor's operation to be revved up, and once it did, they folded like a house of cards," Assemblyman Kevin O'Toole (R-Essex) said. "It's everything: the money, the power of the office, his own personal largesse, his own personal chits that are out there. There are so many components and it was like they all -- at one time -- were in sync."

By yesterday afternoon, less than two days after he defiantly declared Corzine's proposed sales tax increase was "dead in the General Assembly," Roberts found himself standing at a podium side by side with the governor. He was accepting a sales tax increase he had aggressively sought to kill.

"We do owe the people of this state an apology. We have disrupted their lives. We have caused hardship," Roberts said.

After days of heated rhetoric and political posturing, the unraveling of the Speaker's opposition began early Wednesday evening.

Roberts and Senate President Richard Codey, who was acting as a peace broker, met Corzine in the governor's office at about 7 p.m.

Corzine, seeking to jump-start talks with Roberts, offered a modified version of a compromise Codey had put forth weeks earlier. The issue was all about how the governor's proposed sales tax would be spent.

The Speaker had said any sales tax increase was unacceptable unless "every single, solitary penny" went towards property tax reform. Codey had suggested splitting it down the middle -- with half going towards balancing the budget and half towards property tax relief. Corzine was now willing to sweeten that deal a little by seeking a constitutional amendment to dedicate that money to property tax relief for 10 years.

By that time, word had spread around the Statehouse that earlier in the day, Corzine had met with his Washington, D.C.-based media consultant, Mike Donilon. The political adviser had written scripts for four television spots intended to put public pressure on Roberts to break the budget stalemate.

But when Roberts emerged from the meeting, he appeared more entrenched than ever. He announced that Assembly Democrats were pushing forward with their own alternative budget that would eliminate Corzine's sales tax increase. Codey appeared dispirited and said he believed they remained at a standstill and that the governor would veto the Speaker's plan.

Later that night, the Assembly Budget Committee held a hastily called meeting to consider a bill that would make casino regulators "essential employees," a law that would enable gaming halls to stay open in the event of a government shutdown. The powerful committee is chaired by Assemblyman Louis Greenwald (D-Camden), a key Roberts ally.

The move was designed to take political heat off two Roberts allies: Assemblymen James Whelan and Jeff Van Drew, who both represent Atlantic County where thousands of casino workers live. If casino workers could go back to work, it would ease pressure on South Jersey Democrats and embolden them to keep fighting Corzine.

But Corzine's allies quickly hijacked the hearing.

One of them was Sen. William Gormley, a powerful and savvy Atlantic County Republican who helped rally the casino workers' union behind the Democratic governor.

During the hearing Gormley openly challenged Greenwald to pass a budget, and dismissed the chairman's invitation to join with the Assembly plan.

"I think I'll support the governor, because he's not in the tank. Okay?" Gormley said.

Then came a strategic parliamentary maneuver.

Assemblyman Joseph Cryan (D-Union), made a motion to amend the bill so that all state workers would be classified "essential employees." Greenwald sought to block it, but Corzine's team had stacked the audience with state workers, who began to shout that they were out of work, too, and that they were just as essential as casino workers.

The amendment passed. But the Cryan maneuver had essentially poisoned the bill. It stood no chance of passing the Assembly because of the constitutional issues it raised.

The state constitution prohibits the state from spending money without a budget in place, but it makes an exception for employees essential to preserving the health, safety and welfare of residents. Making all 80,000 state workers essential would render the term meaningless and would never pass muster with the courts.

"It was a critical turning point," one key Democrat and Corzine ally said.

But the political theater also demonstrated Greenwald did not have firm control of the 11-member Assembly Budget Committee -- which was critical to Roberts getting his alternative budget through.

Yesterday morning, Senate Majority Leader Bernard Kenny prowled the Assembly Chamber, twisting arms on the governor's behalf as Corzine prepared to deliver another speech. Word of the budget committee debacle had spread, and there was a sense that the battle had turned for the governor.

Corzine stepped up the pressure with a fiery speech that chastised the Assembly Budget Committee for its lack of action and exhorted lawmakers to get a deal by day's end. He also publicly laid out the plan he'd mentioned to Roberts the night before.

Moments later, Assembly Democrats gathered in their caucus room in the Statehouse basement. They were battle-fatigued and clamoring for Roberts to cut a deal.

By then, key allies from within the Speaker's own ranks began telling him it was over. It was time to compromise. Lawmakers in the caucus say Roberts delivered an impassioned speech, calling his team courageous. They say he also claimed he knew there were double agents in his midst, relaying information back to the Corzine camp.

"A few members betrayed the caucus, and I'm not sure they'll ever be forgiven," said one Assembly Democrat who requested anonymity.

Within hours, Corzine walked out of his office and up to the Speaker's second floor office, looking determined. He was silent, but his chief of staff, Tom Shea, was wearing a wide grin. Behind closed doors, Corzine also agreed to state publicly that he would make it a "goal" next year to dedicate 100 percent of the sales tax revenue to property tax relief. Aides to Corzine say the language was just that, a vague way to help Roberts save face after a grueling battle.

Reflecting on the experience and perhaps speaking for many others, the veteran Gormley said there are three basic rules for surviving the Statehouse: "Get along with the governor. Get along with the governor. Get along with the governor."

Staff writers Deborah Howlett, Joe Donohue and Dunstan McNichol contributed to this report.


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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.