The Outsiders: 2018 budget impasse

BY David Cruz, Senior Correspondent |

The Outsiders is a new program that features two former Trenton insiders. Both State Assemblymen John Wisniewski and Jack Ciattarelli ran for governor and lost to an outsider, but they were in the chamber during last year’s government shutdown. They shared some unique insights into how the sausage gets made.

Wisniewski: While his intentions are good, his methodologies probably leave something to be desired because Steve Sweeney has been in the Legislature a long time and was a Freeholder director before that, has tons of political experience, more than the governor does. Speaker Coughlin as well, and I think he didn’t appreciate the political dynamic of what he was getting into, and there were lots of things that could have been done differently to lay the groundwork so that he had an easier path. Not an easy path, but an easier path.

Cruz: I feel like he’s starting to get his sea legs a little bit.

Ciattarelli: Time will tell. I would suggest that the Sweeney/Murphy relationship was fractured before Murphy even took office, and now it’s broken. He went ahead and he ran those TV ads. I think it was a mistake.

Cruz: Keep in mind though, the subtext I guess.

Ciattarelli: They are benign, but they’re still offensive to the leadership, and I think you’re seeing it now.

Wisniewski: I thought you were talking about the general election last year.

Ciattarelli: No, I’m talking about the Murphy ads.

Wisniewski: I disagree. I don’t think the ads were as dispositive as that election last year.

Ciattarelli: Just the fact that they’re running, I think is offensive. Coughlin and Sweeney said don’t run the ads. He went ahead and ran the ads.

Wisniewski: Not very different than what Corzine did though.

Ciattarelli: No, but still. The leadership asked him not to run those ads. And during budget negotiations that were already tenuous, it’s only made things worse. There’s another big mistake that I think Murphy is making. People tend to vote against something, not for something. And I believe the vote last year was an anti-Christie vote, not a vote for the Murphy agenda. Listen, there’s a time and a place, John, and I know you believe probably in a lot of the things Murphy is pushing, there’s a time and place for a progressive liberal agenda. I just don’t think this is it. We need to get our fiscal house in order.

Wisniewski: Well, we can get our fiscal house in order and have a progressive agenda. They’re not mutually exclusive. It requires commitment.

Ciattarelli: Well, I don’t know how to do that with things like free pre-K and community college. You’ve got to pay for those things.

Wisniewski: Well, that’s what he’s trying to do. I mean, and you and I have experienced this, the Legislature’s very good at saying we’re going to do this and there will be growth in the spring. It almost like a line from being there. You have to have real numbers. When we did the Transportation Trust Fund, the Legislature, not you and I, you and I voted against this, we cut about $900 million from our state budget. It’s interesting that the dilemma today is about $900 million not being there to fund the priorities that are in the current budget. You can’t go around cutting revenue. The Legislature, on a bipartisan basis for 20 years, has been very good at cutting revenue, but not very good at saying, OK, well we can’t afford to do this. So my point is if you want to make the commitment to have the revenue, which Gov. Murphy is trying to do, you can fund a progressive agenda. But you can’t have a progressive agenda if you’re not willing to pay for it.

Ciattarelli: Well, you teed up for me in one respect, this is what I find infuriating as a taxpayer. The Supreme Court has handed New Jersey two gift wrapped items on a silver platter — sports betting and taxing internet sales. Those are two new revenue streams. If the Democratic majority wants to legalize marijuana and go ahead with the tax amnesty program, they’ve probably got somewhere between a billion, and a billion and a half. To me, every penny of new revenue should go toward the pension crisis because it’ll cripple us and cause a crowding out effect going forward. But if they don’t want to do that and they want to fund their new programs, fund it with the new revenue. Why do we have a raise a single tax?

Wisniewski: As we sit here on June 28, the fact of the matter is that the 29 or 30 is the soonest you’re going to see action, which means you’re really skirting that July 1 deadline date very close. The governor has to make a choice now. He’s got a budget on his desk, and he’s got to make a choice about what he’s going to do. He can line item veto the expenditures that he’s identified as being inconsistent with his spending priorities that aren’t consistent with his revenue expectations. He could outright veto the budget which would precipitate a shutdown.

Ciattarelli: If you’re not in real leadership acquisition on days like this, which I was not, John was higher in the ranks than I was, so if you’re not in a real leadership position and you’re in the minority, the feeling is helplessness.

Cruz: You’re just going to have to show up.

Ciattarelli: And it’s frustrating as hell when you’ve got specific ideas on how we should do it better, which is why these two guys ran for governor.

Cruz: And that’s how you end up as outsiders.

Ciattarelli: It’s a feeling of helplessness and it is very, very frustrating.

Cruz: The offers than are on the table now, given those blocks, build me a house.

Wisniewski: The notion that this is going to be a fully soluble solution …

Cruz: We’re all going to agree that this budget is going to suck no matter what happens.

Wisniewski: It’s going to have problems with it no matter what we do. It’s going to get closer to being a better budget. We have to start balancing revenues, and we have to get away from what historically has been the trend to be overly optimistic about our revenue projections. And, we had projections when we talked about the Transportation Trust Fund, not to bring up a two-year old issue, that even if we cut the estate tax, even if we cut the sales tax, the growth in revenue in the other taxes is going to make up for it.

Cruz: Chris Christie used to say that all the time.

Ciattarelli: If you measured this budget by solving our three greatest long-term problems — pension, which includes the post-retirement health care benefit, property taxes and school funding — this budget, like the previous eight, will suck.