New Jersey Governor in a Bind

Republicans gain legislative majority and proceed to slash Democrat's budget, taxes

PRESIDENT Bush and Republican Gov. Pete Wilson of California aren't alone in having trouble with partisan differences between the executive and legislative branches.

Democratic Gov. Jim Florio of New Jersey is having similar problems with a Republican-controlled Legislature. New Jersey is one of 15 states in which a governor of one party faces a legislature dominated by the other. Seldom, however, has the disagreement been as intense as in the Garden State.

Although Mr. Florio said while campaigning in the fall of 1989 that he saw no need to raise taxes, the combination of a hefty inherited deficit and the pinch of the recession prompted him to push through the then-Democratic Legislature a record-high $2.5 billion tax hike.

By the following summer, Florio had also secured legislation to channel most school aid to poorer districts, reduce auto insurance premiums by 20 percent, and ban the possession or sale of semiautomatic firearms. The governor's aides said more public policy had been changed in that half-year than in the previous decade.

Then, last fall, voters had their first chance to speak up at the polls. Republicans swept both the Senate and the Assembly. Mandate assumed

"Without exception, the Republicans elected felt they had a mandate from the people to cut spending and taxes," says New Jersey Republican State Committee executive director Bill Ulrey.

Larry Sabato, a professor of government at the University of Virginia, says voters commonly use midterm elections to judge a governor's performance, but that New Jersey's GOP "tidal wave" was rare.

"People just didn't like the tax increases, and they didn't buy Florio's explanations for them," he says.

Riding high in public support, GOP lawmakers quickly rolled back the 1 percent sales-tax hike added by the Democrats; this summer they overrode a Florio veto to approve a budget that is $1.1 billion lower than he wanted. And, last week, GOP legislators, many of whom got campaign funds from the National Rifle Association and a state affiliate, repealed the ban on assault weapons.

Though they are taking some heat from the voters on the spending cuts and have failed to garner enough support to pass some key GOP legislation, the Republican lawmakers plan next to try to reverse the governor's changes in education spending and auto insurance premiums.

Some political analysts say Republicans are pushing their mandate too far. "The Republicans are feeling their power; they're almost in a feeding frenzy," says Jo Rennee Formicola, chairman of the political science department at Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J.

"If they don't watch out, they're going to do exactly the same thing Florio did. In attempting to change everything very quickly, they may end up getting a public backlash.... Most people are moderates."

The speed and forcefulness of the governor's approach to his job have been the target of much of the criticism against him.

"You've got to do business by consensus between leadership and the people; instead, Florio went in like a bull in a china shop," says Dr. Formicola.

Stephen Adubato Jr., a political commentator and lecturer in public policy at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., says the governor assumed he had a larger mandate than he did and was unwilling to compromise with his own Democratic legislators.

"They paid the price in 1991," says Mr. Adubato.

Supporters of Florio, a lawyer and former congressman, say he has simply been exercising leadership on tough issues.

The governor says he will veto the Legislature's cancellation of his assault-weapons ban and let the public vote on the issue in a referendum. Most polls show strong public support for the governor's ban.

"The difficulty for the Republicans in terms of being able to control state government is that they just barely have veto-proof majorities," says Mr. Ulrey. "They can't afford a single defection in the Senate."

Adubato insists that, before the current round is over, Republicans themselves will "backtrack" on the budget.

"They made a big deal out of overturning Florio's veto, but now they're not so ready to face the music with the voters [on service cuts].... It looks as if about half the cuts are going to be restored," he says.

"Voters want it all, and they don't want to pay for it; that's the basic problem in the nation and all 50 states," notes Dr. Sabato. Scenario not unusual

Deil Wright, a professor of political science and public administration at the University of North Carolina, says the Trenton situation is not that unusual. In the 1950s, he recalls, Michigan's Republican legislators forced Democratic Gov. G. Mennon Williams to miss meeting a couple of payrolls, although the situation was less severe those of Florio and Wilson.

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