N.J. Assembly fails to override Christie veto of bill requiring detailed data on borrowing

Six months ago, every Republican in the state Assembly voted for a bill that would have required more detailed reporting by the state about the long-term impact of its soaring debt. The bill passed unanimously.

But Governor Christie, a fellow Republican, vetoed the measure, calling any such debt analysis “highly speculative.”

On Monday, when the Democratic majority tried to override that veto — which would have been a first since Christie took office in 2010 — those same Republicans had a change of heart. Most abstained or didn’t vote at all — and the bill died.

Christie’s veto, and the GOP lawmakers’ decision not to challenge it, marks the second time this month that the administration has sought to minimize the public release of economic data while the state’s finances continue to be tenuous — with an unemployment rate that remains stubbornly higher than the national average and a series of downturns in the state’s credit rating.

It also comes at a time when Christie’s record is attracting wider attention on the national stage amid indications that he may seek the Republican nomination for president in 2016.

Christie has sought to make the case that his fiscal policies and reforms — such as requiring public employees to pay more for benefits and rebuffing Democrats’ attempts to raise taxes on the highest earners — have rescued the state from years of fiscal mismanagement under Democrats. But critics have said that the New Jersey economy could be an area of vulnerability if Christie does seek higher office.

The measure under consideration Monday would have required a series of 10-year forecasts from the Treasury Department to help make it easier to gauge the affordability of New Jersey’s borrowing, which totaled more than $40 billion as of the latest official report, ranking it fourth highest per capita among all states. Ten days ago, Treasury announced that it would no longer release as much detailed monthly information about how state tax collections are measuring up to budget projections.

And earlier this year, the administration delayed the release of the annual state debt report, which showed the largest increase in borrowing during Christie’s tenure.

On Monday, the Republicans said they were persuaded by a last-minute warning from the administration that the measure could lead to lawsuits from bondholders and potentially violate federal securities law. They declined to offer much in the way of specifics about that warning and Treasury did not respond to a request for details. A spokesman for the governor, who was attending political events in Wisconsin and Ohio on Monday, declined comment.

The Democrats, meanwhile, said they’re still in the dark.

“I think it’s outlandish,” said Assembly Majority Leader Lou Greenwald, D-Camden.

Moments before the bill was posted for a vote, Republican Leader Jon Bramnick, R-Union, urged sponsors to postpone the override vote.

“Once we do it, we jeopardize a whole host of issues,” Bramnick said. “These are very technical issues.”

Democrats, who control the Assembly by a 47-32 majority, needed only seven Republicans to stick with the bill for an override. But the final results were 45 in favor, 5 against, 23 abstentions and seven lawmakers recorded as “not voting.”

Assemblyman Troy Singleton, the primary sponsor of the legislation, said 11 other states have similar measures and none, to his knowledge, have run afoul of bond covenants. He also said Christie failed to raise the issues cited by Republicans on Monday in his veto message.

“If it was that big of a concern, I’m just struck that it was not included in the document we all considered,” said Singleton, D-Burlington.

In his veto message Sept. 11, Christie had said the debt-reporting bill could result in the release of “highly speculative” information that could hurt the state’s bond rating, which has already been lowered by major ratings agencies this year. He said the current state debt reporting is sufficient, and added a promise that cutting borrowing and spending “will continue to be a primary focus of this administration.”

Sponsor Jay Webber, R-Morris, was among the handful of Republicans who voted for the override. He said the information is important to get out, especially as lawmakers are expecting a new transportation spending plan from the administration that is likely to rely on more borrowing.

“I think it’s the right thing to do,” Webber said.

But Assemblyman Michael Patrick Carroll, R-Morris, said the best course was to hold off from voting until the technical issues could be addressed.

“It seems to be the appropriate thing to do would be for the administration to sit down with the sponsors and see if there isn’t some possibility of figuring out a reasonable compromise,” Carroll said.

Greenwald said the override still would have required a vote in the Senate, where it initially passed 40-0, offering the time the Republicans said was needed to evaluate the concerns raised at the last minute by the administration.

“I have no evidence before me that says this is inappropriate,” Greenwald said. “None.”

Previous efforts to override Christie’s vetoes on bills to increase the income tax on the wealthy, legalize same-sex marriage and boost funding for women's health clinics all failed. Environmental activists are also trying to rally enough votes for an override of a bill Christie vetoed in August that would ban the dumping of fracking waste in New Jersey.

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