Friday, July 07, 2006

State Budget - Philly Inquirer - How Dems folded to Corzine

Published in the Philadelphia Inquirer, Friday, July 7, 2006

Democrats knew they had to end their feud

One lawmaker said the tax compromise was "the best... in a given set of circumstances."

By Kaitlin Gurney, Jennifer Moroz and Elisa Ung
Inquirer Trenton Bureau

TRENTON - Defiant Assembly Democrats still say New Jersey didn't need a sales-tax increase.

But what the state did need six days into an increasingly embarrassing government shutdown, they said, was a deal.

Democrats arrived at the Statehouse yesterday morning resigned to putting an end to their weeks-long showdown with Gov. Corzine over his proposed one-point increase in the state's 6 percent sales tax.

And so when he offered a compromise - albeit one a shade different than a plan he had embraced 10 days ago - they jumped at it.

Like the 10-day-old compromise brokered by Senate President Richard J. Codey (D., Essex), the agreement a tired and weary Corzine offered yesterday would reserve half of the revenue from a sales-tax hike in a special fund for property-tax relief. This plan, however, would place a referendum on the November ballot asking voters to constitutionally dedicate that money solely as a salve for property taxes.

In an emotional Assembly caucus meeting after the freshman governor's 9 a.m. speech [Thursday, July 6] to the Legislature, Democrats who had stood behind Assembly Speaker Joseph Roberts Jr.'s stalwart opposition to the sales tax folded to Corzine's side.

The meeting represented a momentous change from Tuesday, when Roberts had told Corzine that only 15 of his 49 members would support a sales-tax increase of any kind. Roberts himself maintained he would not support a bump in the tax unless all of it went to property-tax relief, but yesterday he told his war-weary caucus that the impasse had to end.

Assemblyman Jeff Van Drew (D., Cape May), who opposed a sales-tax increase, said he changed his mind because the Corzine plan seemed to be "the best that we could do in a given set of circumstances."

"Our constituents had a gun to their heads - so did the Legislature," Van Drew said. "We've got to get people working. South Jersey, particularly, was being paralyzed."

With the influential Essex, Hudson and Union County Democrats shifting to Corzine's side, former Assembly Speaker Albio Sires (D., Hudson) was one of several lawmakers advising Roberts that it was time for the stalemate to end.

It was a familiar role for Sires - last year, in a similarly bitter budget standoff among majority-party Democrats, he counseled Roberts that it was time to stop insisting on the same generous property-tax rebates the state had offered the year before.

By noon, Corzine, Codey and Roberts were huddled in frenzied closed-door meetings, emerging often to offer the first words of optimism in a months-long budget dispute. The final agreement was announced triumphantly at 4:30.

Republicans yesterday were quick to paint Corzine as the winner in the budget battle and Roberts the loser. They said any increase in the sales tax, for property-tax relief or not, meant the Camden County Democrat had lost the war.

But the Assembly speaker succeeded in making property-tax relief the focus of the battle, Corzine and Codey noted.

Sen. Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) said he thought Roberts showed real leadership by listening to his caucus.

"A true leader doesn't inflict his will on his members," said Sweeney, who has opposed the sales-tax hike and declared he still would not vote for it. "Joe Roberts fought a fight as long as he could fight it."

Because it was rooted in ego and principle, the budget standoff bruised everyone involved, Democrats say.

Corzine was convinced he had to win the sales-tax fight for Democratic lawmakers to respect his independence for the three years of his term.

Assembly leaders put together an increase in payroll taxes and the corporate business tax that they believed balanced the budget as well or better than an increase in the sales tax.

And with the history of Gov. Jim Florio's 1990 never-forgiven sales-tax hike on his side, Roberts told members that raising that tax could lose them their majority in the Statehouse.

"Any time there is a family feud, there are going to be hurt feelings," said Sen. Paul Sarlo (D., Bergen). "We're going to put our personal differences aside."

Contact staff writer Kaitlin Gurney at 609-989-7373 or

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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.