Legislative leaders plan to approve a state budget that is nearly an exact match of Gov. Chris Christie's proposal in February. It has most of that budget proposal's shortcomings and leaves most of the governor's cuts to services and investments on the table.
Christie's tax hike on the working poor remains in place; schools are still underfunded by a massive $1.2 billion; green-jobs programs are on the cutting board; and no attempt was made to hold him to his 2009 campaign pledge to increase funding for higher education. Meanwhile, the budget includes more than $200 million in corporate tax breaks and protects Christie's tax cuts for New Jersey's richest 1 percent.
It's worth noting how New Jersey's budget debate has differed from other states. Elected officials around the country have come to the conclusion that three years of the sort of deep budget cuts that Christie made fashionable his first year in office have deprived their residents of essential services and done real damage to their local economies. Now states are either reinvesting rebounding revenues or raising new revenue to make smart investments that will make the most of their economic recoveries.
In Indiana, Republican legislators defied their Republican governor and trimmed his tax cut to make room for reinvesting in essential services. California increased taxes on high-income earners last year and is now preparing to restore deep cuts to public schools and higher education. There are no similar voices calling for these kinds of steps in New Jersey.
Not only are New Jersey legislators out of step with their colleagues in other states, they seem at odds with their own past positions on Christie's budget cuts. In 2011, the Legislature passed a budget that reaffirmed their priorities. It ended Christie's 2010 tax cut for millionaires and used the funds to restore his devastating cuts to urban and suburban schools around the state. It restored funding for women's health, put cops back on the street, invested in green-job development, and provided funding for housing construction that would make New Jersey more affordable and create jobs at the same time.
When the governor vetoed those restorations, legislators were rightly outraged. Senate President Steve Sweeney, D-Gloucester, Salem, Cumberland, said he "wanted to punch the governor in the face." Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver, D-Essex, called the vetoes "unfortunate and heartbreaking." But the very voices that blasted Christie for his budget cuts now have given their stamp of approval to a budget that keeps so many of those cuts in place. Where was their outrage now?
The Legislature is a coequal branch of government, and it is the branch that actually drafts the budget. It can choose to accept or reject the governor's preliminary proposal. Why would legislators not take the opportunity to lay out an alternative vision to fiscal policies that have done so much damage to New Jersey?
This year's budget debate that wasn't is a missed opportunity. Legislators could have made an aggressive case for a budget that invests in pro-job, pro-growth programs like affordable after-school care, public preschool, higher education, and infrastructure development. And they could have once again been the real voice of fiscal responsibility by saying that everyone - including the richest 1 percent - should pay their fair share for the services that benefit all of us.
Instead, legislators failed to offer a real alternative to this governor's economic agenda, which has consistently placed the interests of the very rich above the rest and failed to deliver the economic growth that we were promised.
Bill Holland is the executive director of the New Jersey Working Families Alliance in Newark.