WNYC's Bob Hennelly is an award-winning investigative journalist. While at WNYC he has reported on a wide gamut of major public policy questions ranging from immigration and homeland security to power outages and utility mergers.
This year in New Jersey the State Assembly and the State Senate have to face the voters in November.
And in his budget address, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie told Democrats they had a clear choice. Either cut state worker benefits by shifting more of the costs to them or forget property tax relief for New Jersey's beleaguered homeowners.
"The choice is straightforward: without real health benefit reform, we will not be able to provide New Jerseyans with a doubled property tax rebate," said Christie who held out the prospect of an additional $458 million in direct property tax rebates. But if, and only if, Democrats joined him in passing legislation to require state workers to pay 30 percent of the costs of their health care premiums— up from on average just 8 percent.
"It is that simple: we can only afford this increase if health reform is passed. So, let’s pass real reform this spring and use the proceeds to double the property tax relief for middle class New Jerseyans and seniors. Please, let’s not pick the special interests over our overburdened taxpayers," Christie said.
Right after Christie's budget address, the Democratic legislative leadership blasted Christie. How did the tens of thousands of New Jersey's "hard working" public servants who do everything from care for the terminally ill to guard society's most dangerous characters, all get reduced to a "special interest?"
Democratic Assembly Majority Leader Joe Cryan said Christie was cynically pitting state workers against property tax-weary homeowners.
"The idea of playing one segment of New Jersey against another, which is in Governor Christie's playbook," said Cryan. "I thought was quite frightening. It's about property taxpayers we are fighting for, about folks who need jobs and want to see the economy improve."
Christie's $29.4 billion budget maintains last year's funding levels for higher education and municipal aid. Christie also committed to making a required half-billion dollar payment into the state's pension system that is underfunded by $54 billion.
Last year, Christie balanced his budget by withholding the mandated pension contribution because he said he was holding out for reform.
From Christie's perspective, the only way public workers will be able to lay claim to any of these benefits is if they are put on sound financial footing something now. Senate Democratic President Steve Sweeney also has a plan to reform pensions. The state's contract with its workers expires in June.
Governor Christie's budget proposal put the Democratic legislative leadership in a tough spot. Bob Masters is with the Communications Workers of America union that represents state workers. Masters said Christie is using the legislative process to supplant the collective bargaining process between the union and management.
He said Jersey Democrats should do what Wisconsin Democrats are doing and back up the unions right to negotiate these issues.
"I want to be really clear about this. We understand that people are struggling and that we need to step up and do our share. We want to do it through the process of collective bargaining as we have always done it," Masters said.
Democrats also complained that the Christie administration had been too secretive about their budget plans. They noted that journalists had actually gotten something in writing that summarized the Governor's plan — something the Democrats did not get.
Assembly Speaker Shelia Oliver said she is apprehensive about Governor Christie's plans to contain the rapidly rising costs of Medicaid, a joint state and federal program to cover the poor and disabled.
Governor Christie said to close more than $1 billion deficit in the program he needs a regulatory waiver from Washington to get flexibility. He insisted he wants to reduce the costs while improving the quality of care by shifting more patients to managed care.
Assembly Speaker Shelia Oliver said she needs specifics.
"The governor made mention that this budget contains a 30 percent reduction in the Department of Health and Human Services. And we know that that correlates with his seeking a a Medicaid waiver. We'll get into the weeds on that."
Last year Washington provided billions in additional Medicaid funding to states to help cover a spike in demand for the program related to ongoing high unemployment. That money is all gone, but states like New Jersey are still bound by the federal government not to drop anyone they have enrolled. And help from the federal health care legislation passed last year doesn't kick in until 2014.
The Legislature and Governor Christie have until July 1 to reach a budget deal.