Democrats, Get Ready To Lead: Budgeting on the Ballot

In part three of the series, Talaiporia raises the challenge of the Democrat's shift to using the ballot as a means to pursue their agenda.

In part three of the series, Talaiporia asks if the Democrats are ready to stand behind their new strategy of budgeting on the ballot.

While the Governor spent his dwindling days on the campaign trail, New Jersey Democrats were busy at work with renewed energy to move their agenda.  Their work included getting out in front of the Governor’s budget address with multiple constitutional amendments for the November ballot, each of which impact the state budget in one way or another.  Rather than waiting, as they have done in years past, for Christie’s inevitable narrative of austerity budgeting, the Democrats are forcing him to address their agenda.

It is a bold move, years overdue. The question is, how will the wounded wayward Governor, returning from a trouncing in New Hampshire, react to this new found demonstration of power from the Democrats?

There has been much speculation as to whether the Governor will come back ready to work or to wage war. It is far more likely, as Tom Moran explains here, that war is what we should expect.

This should come as no surprise to the Democratic leadership.  They gave the Governor easy targets by challenging his power through the use of constitutional amendments. While the governor is unlikely to attack the proposal for north Jersey casino gambling since he helped broker a compromise, the proposal to dedicate gas tax revenue may be used to sway public opinion back to his favor as he rails against tax increases. The most recent move by Senate President Sweeney for a future amendment of a $15/hour minimum wage must be tempting target as well.  But the obvious target is the proposal to amend the constitution to require quarterly payments to the state pension funds.

We saw a preview of what to expect in the State of the State address and in the Governor’s futile town hall tour of New Hampshire.  Upon his return to New Jersey he released, with obvious deft timing, the Pension Commission’s report offering radical changes to coverage and benefits while indicting the proposed constitutional amendment.

This is classic Christie.  By now, if we do not see it coming, shame on us.  The real question is, how will Democratic leaders choose to respond?  If we have learned anything from the past 6 years of Christie, it is that showing any weakness is not an option.  If the Democrats are committed to correcting the course of the New Jersey economy and meeting our obligations, they must be ready to fight every step of the way with absolute conviction.  Anything less and the Governor wins the war of public opinion, which is especially dangerous when we are putting these proposals to popular vote.

What does that look like for Democratic leadership?  It means if the Governor attacks their proposals, they attack back.  If the Governor claims the payments are unaffordable, Democratic leaders defend the feasibility. If the Governor says making the pension payment will cause cuts to other services, Democratic leaders provide facts about the choices available to make pension payment without hurting the people of New Jersey.  If the Governor portrays public unions as greedy, Democratic leaders immediately respond by unequivocally defending of unions.   If the Governor attacks teachers, his favorite target on his warpath, Democratic leaders call for a stop of his abuse and defend teachers in clear and absolute terms.

This is war.  And there is no choice but to fight if the Democrats want to win. Behind the door deals may work for decisions that can be made within statehouse walls, but not once the Democrats decide to bring these decisions to the people. The stage has changed and so must the tactics.  The Senate President and Assembly Speaker must demonstrate unity and bring the full force of both their caucuses with them.  Every legislator must be prepared to speak in strong support of these amendments to their constituents.  There must be a sustained commitment on their part to fight to win.

It is not an easy path and it requires resilience to take on the Governor, who relies on wearing down the opposition by bullying.  But that did not work for him in New Hampshire and it does not have to work for him in New Jersey, if the Democrats really are ready to lead.


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