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On budget, Democrats should think ahead

The budget stalemate in Trenton got a push and a shove last week, but it still lacks any certain direction.

As expected, Gov. Chris Christie whipped out his veto pen June 30 on a $34.1 billion budget sent to him by Democrats that included a full $2.25 billion pension payment, accounted for by a series of tax hikes on millionaires and businesses.

Christie instead signed a $32.5 billion spending plan with no tax increases and a plan to reduce that scheduled pension payment to just $681 million. He'll most likely again need court approval to do so, like he received last month in order to cut the recently ended fiscal year's scheduled pension payment.

Democrats knew it was coming but were still predictably outraged.

They want Christie to stick to his word and honor their agreed-upon overhaul of the pension system back in 2011. Now is not the time to go back on a deal.

The governor says revenues aren't where they need to be and that he has no other choice.

Christie won't raise taxes by any means at this point.

Whether he's a viable candidate still or not, he's come too close to 2016 and a potential run for the presidency to fall out of favor with fiscal conservatives with deep pockets.

But for Democrats, they might have more to lose in this fight, according to one insider.

Regardless of whether Christie ends up in Washington or back home in Mendham in a couple of years, Democrats are eyeing the governor's office in 2017. They want to be ready.

Both politically and fiscally, they may want to make moves during this budget fight that will not only help their chances, but not also put them in a bind if they're successful.

“Somebody's going to inherit this mess,” the source said. “You might as well try and correct it now.”

And that might mean having to swallow their pride and meet Christie somewhere in the middle, the source says.

“If they're strategic, they need to come to the table and put the partisan politics aside,” the source said.

The state budget process is a procrastinator’s dream

Does anyone remember SLERP?

That's the State and Local Expenditure and Review Policy Commission. And if you do, then you most likely were around for the Gov. Tom Kean era.

The commission put out its last study back in 1988, examining spending and revenues at both the state and local levels.

Given the last few months of budget drama we've had in Trenton and the near certainty that an even uglier fiscal cycle is ahead of us, one source wonders if it would it be so bad to have SLERP, or a reincarnation of the commission, back in action.

“I think we need to get back to that process and have some folks who are real savvy and smart about these issues,” the insider said.

Even if it's just to examine what's at stake in the upcoming budget cycle and “put this together sooner rather than later,” the source said.

The source says it often seems as if “all of a sudden, we're all scrambling in June trying to get this done.”

Grapevine reports on the behind-the-scenes buzz in the business community. Contact Editor Tom Bergeron at tomb@njbiz.com.

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