BY JOSH McMAHON
It’s a performance that somebody more attuned with political music would have easily avoided. More important, it’s going to cost him some political capital and at this point he can’t waste any. With low numbers in all pubic opinion polls, Corzine can’t afford to antagonize an influential group – but that’s what he’s done.Now he’ll need Democrats in the Legislature to throw him a lifeline.
What’s this latest dust up all about? Money, what else.
The governor, in his zeal to slash spending, cut a bit too deeply from the funding for beach protection, tourism and cultural programs. In fact, some maintain that what he did was illegal.
Corzine and his operatives maintain that a governor can ignore the law when it comes to establishing budget priorities. His legal case for refusing to let existing law guide budget decisions was patched together by his legal staff which seizing the most favorable interpretations of law possible. The legal argument has some merit and has supporters outside the governor’s office. Still, is it wise for a governor to announce that he’s not going to follow the law?
This case, like everything else in Trenton, isn’t just about dollars and cents.
The governor and his coat-holders dismiss the howling by the artsy set about cuts to cultural programs as nothing more than politics. They note that former Gov. Thomas Kean, a backer of GOP contender Chris Christie, is the protagonist in this funding play. (He is but that ignores Kean’s long-standing role as a solid supporter of the arts. Remember he got the New Jersey Performing Arts Center built.)
Without a doubt politics are involved but not the kind of party politics – Republicans versus Democrats – that the governor thinks. Rather, it’s the political clout of the cultural crowd and Corzine should have known that clout is formidable.
His problems were compounded when the well-respected, non-partisan Office of Legislative Services concluded that Corzine’s budgetary maneuvers may indeed be illegal.
The OLS report contains a lot of legislative legalese but the Cliff Notes’ version is that Corzine can’t do what he wants to do - short the arts, tourism and Shore protection accounts by $9.9 million. The governor plans to ignore existing laws that guarantee those programs a certain amount of money each year.
Further, the laws says that if the minimal level of funding is not provided, the state can not collect any revenue from the realty transfer tax and the hotel-motel room tax – the two levies that support the programs. That means huge losses for the state, which gets the bulk of the realty transfer tax, and the municipalities, which share in the tax on motel and hotel rooms.
That provision was put into the laws to prevent the exact thing Corzine is trying to do.
One way out of this mess for Corzine is to have the Legislature pass two separate bills that eliminate the mandatory minimum for arts, beaches and tourism. In an election year that might be tough to do.
Another way out – and the most likely solution – is to have the Legislature slip the money back in the budget. The money isn’t that significant. Cultural and tourism were supposed to get $28.2 million but are slated to receive $24.9 million. Shore protection is down for $18.75 million instead of $25 million.
In the hands of more seasoned politicians – say Dick Codey or Joe Roberts – this never would have become an issue. If their initial budgets mistakenly cut funding for those groups below the legally required minimum they would have called it an oversight and restored the money.
Corzine opted to fight on.
The governor could learn something from the way Kean has handled the situation. He brought the public’s attention to the issue and then followed that up with talk of filing a lawsuit. So far there’s only been talk.
Kean’s orchestration of the arts community’s response to Corzine’s ill-thought out cuts is likely to get the result he wants: Legislative restoration of the money.
The question is whether Corzine will realize why the dance ended that way it did.