When Gov. Chris Christie delivered his proposed fiscal year 2015 state budget to a joint session of the Legislature this week gone was the dominance, the confident swagger, the overwhelming sense of command so evident in his previous appearances.

But even though it was a comparatively subdued Christie, he managed to reach full-throttle passion with his challenge to implement significant changes in the state's strapped public pension system. He warned that pension and health benefit costs threatened to drive the state to the brink of insolvency. He offered no recommendations, but less than a half hour after Christie concluded, Democrats announced they would have none of it.

The problems in the pension system, they said, were addressed adequately in 2011 with enactment of legislation increasing public employee contributions and requiring they pay a greater share of medical coverage costs.

The pension system, Senate President Steve Sweeney said, was just fine, didn't need further tweaking or tinkering, and by the end of the statutory seven-year payment timetable in 2018 would sustain itself.

The swift and total dismissal of the governor's call to action was an unmistakable reassertion by the leadership that it intended to play a considerably stronger role in shaping the budget than it had in the past.

There was immediate speculation that Democrats believe Christie has been significantly weakened by the investigations of his administration and is unable to deal from his customary position of strength.

While there is some validity to that belief, it is just as likely the administration recognized its resources are inadequate to meet all the needs and demands of the budget and that significant improvement in the state's fiscal health in the short term is doubtful.

There was, for instance, no mention of a tax cut, even though that's been a staple of Christie's legislative agenda in the past, an omission construed as a tacit admission that the Democrats' reservations about a tax reduction were correct - it's not affordable at a time when job creation is a fraction of what it should be and unemployment remains unacceptably high.

Not only did Sweeney and company toss the pension-revision idea back into the governor's teleprompter, they used it to belabor him over the agonizingly slow pace of economic recovery - which, they said, has robbed the state of additional tax revenue from working New Jerseyans and more robust business activity.

They credited Christie - properly so - for fulfilling the state's obligation to contribute its share to the pension fund, a record $2.25 billion, and indicated they would demand that the payment schedule be adhered to over the next four budget cycles.

In making his pitch for further pension-system changes, Christie invoked the experience of Detroit, forced into bankruptcy due in large part to out-of-control pension obligations, and the state of California, where the refusal to control pension costs led to increased taxes. But his arguments fell on deaf ears.

The budget that eventually makes its way to Christie's desk in June will closely resemble the $34.4 billion document he submitted this week. Democrats understand quite well that the state's resources are finite and can't support additional spending without new revenue sources in the form of increased taxes, which Christie will surely veto.

Democrats will move some money around, attempt to establish some of their priorities, and implement largely cosmetic changes. They'll continue to argue that economic growth and job creation are the best ways for government to regain its fiscal health, thus embracing what has traditionally been the Republican mantra - grow the economy and all else will fall neatly into place.

Whether the controversies engulfing the administration affected Christie or whether it's simply the early signs of a lame duck administration, Democrats have seized a bit of the control that the governor took from them in his first term.

The dominance, swagger and sense of command have diminished and, while Democrats have not gained the upper hand, they're at least on even terms.

Carl Golden is a senior contributing analyst with the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey.

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