It may seem too soon to pronounce New Jersey's executive-versus-Legislature budget contest over and declare a winner, but here goes:
The fight's over. Gov. Chris Christie won.
The budget that will be sent to Christie's desk in June will closely resemble the $34.4 billion proposal he submitted to the Legislature in February.
His message then was unmistakable: There is no money - none - for significant increases in current programs, and longer-range spending is out of the question.
The budget was a take-it-or-leave-it document, and this forestalled any legislative effort to restructure it or recast it.
After Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-Salem, Gloucester, threatened to shut down state government if the governor failed to fully fund the state's obligation to the public pension system, Christie shrewdly undercut him by allocating $2.5 billion - the largest sum ever - thus draining all suspense from the budget deliberations and leaving his partisan opposition without another credible line of attack.
It was vintage Christie: Lure your opposition into a public posture and then yank the rug from beneath them by either co-opting the issue (as he did with last year's tax-cut proposal) or staking out politically resonant ground, as he did by singling out public employee union demands as the major cause of the state's fiscal difficulties.
He's threatened to take what he has termed "extreme measures" to curb benefit costs if the Legislature refuses to act, although unilateral action is problematic. It is unlikely the Democrats, having staked out their position that the 2011 reform package placed the system on solid footing, will accede to additional employee concessions.
Realizing they'd been outfoxed, Democrats sought to regain the initiative by charging that the governor's budget recommended tax increases.
In a decision that wasn't well-thought-out, Democrats argued that imposing the state sales tax on online purchases from out of state retailers and extending the $2.70-per-pack tax on cigarettes to e-cigarettes put the lie to the governor's repeated no-new-taxes assertions.
But in a classic case of stepping on your own story, Democratic Sen. Ray Lesniak, D-Union, said he intended to introduce a four-cent-per-gallon increase in the state's gasoline tax to replenish the Transportation Trust Fund.
So while Democrats attempted to embarrass Christie by accusing him of increasing taxes on the relatively small segment of the population who make online purchases and the even smaller slice of the public that prefers e-cigarettes, one of the party's leading senators was recommending a tax increase that would affect the state's more than five million licensed drivers.
Several prior governors of both parties sought unsuccessfully to impose the sales tax on out-of-state mail-order purchases and later on online sales. New Jersey businesses, advocates argue, are at a competitive disadvantage, forced to charge more for their products because of the sales tax, while out-of-state retailers escape it.
While the proportion of smokers who have opted for e-cigarettes is unclear, it is logical to assume they've done so out of health concerns rather than because they found it cheaper because of a lower tax rate.
There is a stronger case to be made for a gasoline tax increase to allow the Trust Fund to embark on a capital program to repair, reconstruct and rehabilitate highways and bridges, many of which are functionally obsolete and a risk to the motoring public.
Christie, however, has opposed any increase and it appears from a recent poll that the public agrees with him. Seventy-two percent of respondents reacted negatively to raising the gas tax while slightly fewer - 63 percent - supported restoring the surtax on incomes in excess of $1 million. Christie has vetoed the so-called millionaire's tax more than once and has vowed to do so again if necessary.
With Republicans united in sustaining the vetoes, any move toward increasing the gas tax or approving the surtax is pointless.
The Legislature, then, is left with a budget proposal it is essentially powerless to change in any significant way. It will go about its duty, holding public hearings and listening to aggrieved groups and individuals who feel shortchanged by the budget.
But the usual budget contentiousness between the governor and the Legislature is not likely to occur. The battle was over almost before it began.
Carl Golden is a senior contributing analyst with the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey.