Monday, July 5, 2010

Deal Or No Deal

This Saturday, Governor Christie and Senate President Steve Sweeney held a press conference to announce a deal on a property tax cap. The agreement is a 2% cap on property tax increases with only four exceptions: (i) rising pension and health care costs, (ii) debt payments, (iii) rising school enrollment and (iv) states of emergency.

Two facts quickly emerged from this press conference. First, Assembly President Sheila Oliver is not on board yet. This is a deal between the Governor and the Senate President only.

Second, this compromise allows municipalities to increase property taxes for pension and health care costs. Which is a big win for public employee unions, who are now free to negotiate contractual increases without the limitation imposed by a hard cap. Which is why everyone's attention now turns to the "tool kit," which will strengthen the hand of municipalities in negotiating with unions.

So it seems that Chris Christie may have fallen into exactly the trap forseen by the Wall Street Journal on its editorial page this weekend:

"One temptation for Mr. Christie would be to settle for too little reform when his political capital is at its highest, which was Arnold Schwarzenegger's original mistake in California. When Arnold proposed more far-reaching reforms later, the public mood had changed and he was routed. Mr. Christie's best reform opportunity is now, and taxpayers everywhere should hope he succeeds."

So what we have is an odd form of political theatre. The Governor wanted to announce a deal before people started showing up for 4th of July fireworks that had been cancelled. So we have a cap that has a hole big enough to drive a union contract through and a deal with half of the legislature.

What this means for the Governor who was building a national reputation as a union buster, or for the taxpayers, remains to be seen. But, from my viewpoint, it is a shocking reversal of position for the Governor, who has been making teachers the scapegoat for the State's fiscal problems for some time now. Without a hard cap, the "tool kit" better include a sledgehammer.

I wouldn't be surprised if the Governor was once again faced with a revolt from within his own party. And if I were Sheila Oliver I would hold out for $7.5 million for women's health before agreeing to anything.

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