Sunday, July 4, 2010

The Unitary Executive of New Jersey

This week should have been one of celebration for Governor Christie. He got a budget through the majority-Democratic legislature with close to 100% of his priorities intact. He also got a commitment from the Democratic leadership to work on property tax reform through the summer.

But the Governor is not satisfied. He used his power as Governor to call the legislature into meeting every day over the holiday weekend. And when the legislature refused, the Governor threatened to sue.

What could possibly be on the Governor's mind?

First, this July 4th weekend a lot of taxpayers are going to notice that there are no fireworks in their town, as there usually are. And parents sending their kids to summer school are about to get charged for what used to be a free service. In short, the pain from this budget will be felt in the very immediate future.

Which is why the Governor needs to be seen as doing everything he can to speed property tax reform, to show people that the pain they are feeling now will be followed shortly by gain. Hence the Governor's new willingness to forego a Constitutional Amendment. And hence the Governor's threat of legal action. Because, in all fairness, the Democratic leadership has hinted that they will be moving property tax reform forward at a measured pace, while politically the Governor needs a sprint to the finish line.

There is, however, a second motive at work here. The Governor is intent on exercising every single one of his Constitutional powers as Governor as a policy tool. And the Governor of New Jersey has more power than any other Governor in the nation -- all executive power in New Jersey is vested in the Governor. Our Governor even has a line item veto.

For example, the Governor gets to nominate justices to the Supreme Court of New Jersey. Where, in the past, every Governor has done so on the basis of merit, this Governor decided to use this power to pack the court so as to overturn the State's court-ordered school financing formula. When the Governor exercised his veto over the Millionaires Tax, he did so with a sense of theater within minutes of the bill's passage. And now the Governor is declaring that he has the power to call a special session of the legislature over the holiday weekend, and threatening to sue if lawmakers do not show up (which they did not, in droves).

This second issue is much more about the Governor's future plans than it is about governing New Jersey. By using every arm of Government as a policy tool to the maximum extent of his Constitutional authority and beyond, the Governor is publicly aligning himself with people, such as Dick Cheney, who believe that executives must be strong executive, and that the powers of the President must be unilateral and unchecked. He is, in essence, auditioning for the far right wing of the Republican party.

So when the Governor makes an issue of his Constitutional authority, to my thinking it's almost as if he knows that his policies will cause so much pain that he will be looking for a job in a few years and he's brushing up his resume. It's a sign of weakness.

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