New Jersey Lawmakers Seek Christie End-Run With Ballot Moves

  • Democrats work on five amendments to New Jersey's constitution
  • `We can't wait two more years,' Democratic leader says

As Governor Chris Christie campaigns for the Republican presidential nomination, lawmakers back home in New Jersey are trying to get around him by taking their proposals directly to voters, drawing attention to his record running the state.

The Democratic leaders of the Senate and Assembly have proposed five amendments to the state constitution that would be on the ballot in November. The plans include measures to require more pension funding, dedicate more gas-tax revenue to transportation and expand voting rights.

The amendments are just about the only way to circumvent Christie, who brags of vetoing more than 400 bills passed by a “crazy liberal” legislature since he took office in 2010. Democrats lack the two-thirds majority needed to override the governor. Constitutional amendments, though, don’t require his approval.

“If we haven’t been successful any other way, then we have to do it as a constitutional amendment,” said Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, a Democrat from Teaneck. “What alternative do we have?”

To win the nomination, Christie has been focusing on his record as a former federal prosecutor rather than his stewardship as governor. During Tuesday’s debate, Christie mentioned his tenure as U.S. attorney five times, arguing it was useful experience for a president who will face the Islamic State. He uttered the word governor only once. State Democrats want to make sure people remember his title.

Christie has rejected their proposals to raise the gas tax, and to increase taxes on millionaires to help pay worker benefits. New Jersey will have no money for new roadwork come July 1, and faces an $83 billion pension-funding gap. While his approval has climbed recently in New Hampshire, the state with the first primary, it has dropped back home, where he has the support of only about 30 percent of voters.

New Jersey Senate President Stephen Sweeney, a Democrat from West Deptford, has proposed asking voters to guarantee the state makes full payments of more than $3 billion into its pension fund, after Christie shortchanged it amid sagging revenue. Sweeney said that decision violated a 2011 law the governor signed that required putting more money into the fund.

Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto, a Democrat from Secaucus, is seeking approval to shift some fuel-tax revenue to road repair. The strategy wouldn’t increase the tax, among the lowest in the U.S, but would instead redirect 3 cents per gallon of diesel, plus all gross-receipt taxes charged to refiners and distributors, to transportation.

A third proposal would allow casinos in the northern part of the state to create revenue that would flow back to Atlantic City, a gambling Mecca that has been battered by competition in New York and Pennsylvania.

Another amendment would create new legislative redistricting guidelines. Assemblyman John McKeon, a Democrat from West Orange, said it would remove politics from the process. Members of the Assembly Judiciary Committee, chaired by McKeon, cleared all four proposals on Thursday, the first of several steps needed to get them on the ballot.

Prieto said last month he’s also working on a ballot drive to reverse Christie’s veto of legislation to create automatic voter enrollment and expand early voting.

Plan B

The U.S. Constitution has been amended 27 times since it was ratified in 1788. New Jersey’s has been changed 71 times since its current version was adopted in 1947 and seven times since Christie took office in January 2010. The four questions would be the most on one New Jersey ballot since the 1980s.

In New Jersey, amendments must begin in the legislature and then be approved by voters. For lawmakers, timing is crucial. If they can approve the question twice in consecutive sessions, they only need a simple majority. If they wait until the new session that begins in mid-January, they will need a one-time three-fifths vote to get it on the 2016 ballot.

In 2013, after Christie vetoed a bill to raise the minimum wage to $8.25 an hour in one shot and automatically raise it with inflation, Democrats took the issue straight to voters as a constitutional amendment. That measure passed with 61 percent support.

“This is not what the constitution was intended for,” Christie said in March.

Ominous Warning

On Dec. 8, Christie told a conference of business leaders to beware of constitutionally mandated pension payments, saying they would require a $3 billion tax increase.

Robert Williams, who teaches law at Rutgers University at Camden, said lawmakers have increasingly changed constitutions to implement more routine policy efforts. California has passed more than 500 amendments and Alabama has 892.

Polarization has lowered the bar, Williams said.

“There ought to be a very heavy burden on those who want to put policy matters into the constitution,” Williams said. “It’s a tightrope, really. It is on the upswing in New Jersey and it’s popping into the minds of legislators more frequently, and there are going to be consequences.”

Weinberg, the senator, said each of the four measures being discussed in New Jersey is worthy in its own right.

“I do worry about it in a generic sense,” she said. “But we can’t wait two more years to refund the Transportation Trust Fund and we can’t wait two years to make the full pension payments.”

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