Partisan bickering over New Jersey's $29.7 billion state budget resumed Tuesday, with fresh charges that Gov. Chris Christie used his veto pen to punish political foes and the governor's office condemning the Senate leader for "inappropriate and disrespectful" comments aimed at Christie.
Senate President Stephen Sweeney said he was regretful but unapologetic for calling Christie "a bully and a punk" to The Star-Ledger on Friday as the impact of the governor's last-minute budget cuts sunk in. Christie chiseled $1.3 billion in spending — including $900 million that Democrats added in — in a frenzy of line-item vetoes that left deep gashes to an array of programs and services for some of the most vulnerable residents.
"This got very personal for me because of the way he hurt people," Sweeney said. Of the 11th-hour budget cuts, including several items Christie had originally supported, Sweeney said, "It's not a decent human being thing to do. It was a very mean-spirited thing to do."
Christie slashed $139 million in aid to struggling municipalities from his original budget, leaving just $10 million. He reduced funding by $8 million for AIDS drug distribution, by $5 million for legal services and by $25 million for Tuition Aid Grants, among others. Sweeney said he was particularly upset that Christie cut funds for an early intervention program for children with disabilities, which Sweeney's daughter benefited from as an infant.
With the governor out-of-state on a two-week family vacation, the administration disputed some of the cuts, and Christie's spokeswoman, Maria Comella, said it was "inappropriate and disrespectful" for Sweeney to call the governor names.
The early childhood intervention program lost $7 million but kept the vast majority of its $92.5 funding, the administration said, adding that no children's services would be jeopardized. The cut to AIDS patients eliminates coverage for non-AIDS drugs only, the administration said.
It was the first word from the governor's office since Sweeney used the harsh words over the weekend. Comella said the Republican governor was still ready to work with the Legislature's top Democrat.
The two shared a stage together recently, after Sweeney risked his political neck to get public employee benefits legislation that Christie wanted through the Democrat-controlled Legislature over vehement union objections. Earlier, Sweeney worked with Christie to get a 2 percent property tax cap through both houses.
The state Republican Party called on Sweeney to apologize Tuesday.
But Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver came to the Senate leader's defense. Oliver, who was once called a liar by Christie only to prove him incorrect, said she understood Sweeney's frustration with the governor, though she expressed it differently.
"This governor has constantly used inappropriate and disrespectful language since he took office, so maybe from now on he will finally at least think twice before doing so again," she said.
Sweeney said Christie was motivated to slash the budget because he was angry that Democrats rejected the budget the governor had proposed and crafted their own version. The governor, who has final say over budget line items unless the Legislature can override him, then took a red pen to the budget, slashing Democrats' add-ons and funding he previously supported. But he added to his original proposal of $150 million for suburban schools and boosted the surplus in the budget to more than $600 million.
"I think it was to teach people a lesson," Sweeney said. "This was clearly, 'You didn't do what I told you to do, so I'm going to punish you.' You know what he did, he punished the people we care the most about."
Christie cut Senate staff salaries by $2.7 million and Assembly staff salaries by $1.1 million, but didn't cut his own executive office staff budget. Both houses are controlled by the opposite party. He cut teaching and fellowship programs from Rutgers University's Eagleton Institute of Politics, where Alan Rosenthal is a public policy professor. Rosenthal was the tie-breaking vote in this spring's legislative redistricting that benefited Democrats.
And, he cut $537,000, or 75 percent, from the budget of the Wynona Lipman Child Advocacy Center, which treats children who are victims of sexual and physical abuse. The chairwoman of the center's board, lawyer Nancy Erica Smith, represents former Public Defender Yvonne Segars, who claims the governor forced her from office to put in his own appointee.
Christie spokesman Michael Drewniak called the retribution claim "nonsense."
"If they were honest with themselves and the public, Democrats in the Legislature would own up to the fact that they sent the governor an unbalanced budget, with spending that wasn't supported by real revenue, knowing full well it would force the use of the line-item veto," he said.
Sweeney said Democrats would meet this week to determine their next move. The Assembly wasn't scheduled to convene this week. Override attempts are likely on at least some of the governor's line-item cuts, though it's unlikely any Republicans would cross the governor and go along with them.