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Christie took early control on budget

Gov. Christie got the state budget he wanted, and now he's trying to blunt the effects of his severe cuts to towns and school districts.

Gov. Christie got the state budget he wanted, and now he's trying to blunt the effects of his severe cuts to towns and school districts.

Using his flair for the dramatic, the governor called New Jersey legislators to a special session during this July Fourth holiday weekend.

Their mission: Put a 2.5 percent lid on local spending, so that if local authorities want to spend more, they will have to ask voters' permission.

New Jersey residents, Christie said in a speech to the Legislature on Thursday, "can't be bound, gagged, and forced to endure ever-higher taxes without their consent."

A polished politician, Christie has molded the state's lingering fiscal crisis into a fiscal conservative's march through Trenton.

Explaining his call for the special session, he said, "I have called you back to Trenton during this summer holiday period, when many escape to the beach or the mountains, because for New Jersey taxpayers, there has been no escape. . . . We do not deserve a break when these taxes are breaking the backs of our families."

He began laying the groundwork for the austere budget months ago, and has been using high-profile venues to become the loudest voice in the room in the debate over it.

By the time the Legislature signed off on a state spending plan at 2 a.m. Tuesday, the governor was already scheduled to appear on two cable news networks to tell his version of the story Wednesday morning, according to a 1:21 a.m. Tuesday e-mail from his press secretary.

His quest was to restore what he called "fiscal sanity." Along the way, he cut local aid, skipped a $3 billion pension payment, raised transit fares, and cut back economic-development grants and property-tax rebates.

"We passed a budget that cuts $11 billion from our state's budget, balances it without any new tax increases on the people of the state of New Jersey," he told Joe Kernen on CNBC.

On MSNBC, he told Joe Scarborough: "It's a pretty big accomplishment by everybody who was involved in it, because $11 billion cut out of a budget is pretty significant."

The message was repeated later in the day when Christie signed the budget at the Summit Engine Company in South River. He had been telegraphing the message since taking office in January: Deep cuts to match an $11 billion deficit. No new taxes. Pain for all.

For those having trouble keeping up with his version of events, he issued a handy timetable on Wednesday starting with his inauguration and listing his view of his accomplishments, including vetoing minutes of public authorities, asking for a teacher salary freeze to "protect New Jersey schoolchildren," and getting Super Bowl 2014 to be played in New Jersey.

Each of these events and proclamations reveals a politician who attacks policy like a game of chess, nimbly using cool intellect and well-trained instinct to control the battlefield.

"One of the things past governors have failed to do, particularly Gov. Corzine, was to control the agenda through the media. And the reality is that because of Christie's effective use of the media in shaping public opinion, he got the budget he wanted from a Democratic Legislature," said Montclair State University political scientist Brigid Harrison. "He used the media and he shaped public opinion in such a way that the Democrats felt their hands were truly tied."

Julie Roginsky, a Democratic consultant, said there just weren't many moves to make in this $28.4 billion budget. Revenue was down. Cuts were on the horizon no matter what.

"The governor and the Legislature have a clear sense of urgency because there really is no way to balance this budget if there weren't drastic cuts," she said. "Maybe priorities would have been different" with a Democratic governor, but still there was "no way to balance the budget when receipts are down without cuts."

Democrats were quick to say this budget unfairly cut programs for poor and working families, but they were only able to restore $74 million in programs for them in a compromise with the governor. They contrasted that pain with Christie's refusal to extend a surcharge on the state's wealthiest citizens, called the millionaires' tax.

But Christie held superior field position. He forcefully argued that high taxes make life unaffordable for many and send businesses and jobs out of state.

"Whenever there's been a legislative-gubernatorial showdown, the governor usually wins, because he can shape public opinion and spin his side of the story much more effectively than the Legislature, which has many voices. The governor speaks with one voice," said Seton Hall University political scientist Joe Marbach.

At the same time Christie was wrestling with the Legislature, he was advancing a proposal to deflect the effects of his cuts to municipal and school aid. If schools and towns want to maintain current service levels, they likely will have to raise local taxes, increasing the business and residential burden. So Christie is calling for a 2.5 percent hard cap on local tax hikes.

In the days leading up to the budget passage, there were the usual tense negotiations. A few Republican legislators said they couldn't agree to it because it didn't cut enough. Christie met with them through last weekend and into Tuesday and eventually got them on board. Herding the Republicans was essential for him to get Democrats, who control the Legislature, to agree.

But those who supported the budget may pay a political price down the road.

As Christie was corralling Republicans in meetings in the governor's office, some of the state's strongest advocates for the poor were promising retribution.

Ev Liebman of New Jersey Citizen Action said the group was there to "bear witness to the decisions this Legislature and this governor are going to make about the quality of life for everybody in New Jersey."

She said her group, which helps poor and middle-class families deal with economic problems, would spend the next year educating residents on the budget.

"Next year, when they go into the voting booth to vote for new Assembly members and new senators, they should ask, 'Which side were you on on June 29, 2010, when this budget was being decided? On the side of citizens or on the side of millionaires?' " Liebman said.