By Tom Ferrick Jr.
When I covered government on a regular basis, I loved to write about the process of passing a budget. That sounds sick, I know.
In the news business, budget stories are known as MEGO's, as in My Eyes Glaze Over.
Headline a story Budget Stalemate Continues and it is guaranteed to prompt readers to turn the page, just like Pavlov's dog.
But, I can't help myself, doctor. The problem with government budgets is that most people see them as an unwieldy collection of numbers. They are not. Budgets really are manifestos - the embodiment of the philosophy of a chief executive or the ruling party.
In New Jersey, Gov. Christie is demonstrating the truth of that observation - in spades. We can hear the howls here on the west bank of the Delaware.
Budget making is a process that begins with introduction of a proposed budget by the governor or mayor and ends with its passage into law.
To most, it is a bore. I see it as drama. I love the interplay of personalities, the petty conflicts, the last-minute rescues. The only thing missing is a damsel in distress.
For instence, it's hard to imagine Joan Krajewski as a damsel in distress. It's hard to imagine Joan Krajewski as a damsel.
Maybe it would help if, instead of writing stories with headlines like Budget Dispute Deepens, we journalists wrote plays or musicals or - better yet - operas about budgets.
La Battaglia di Bilancio, with Wilson Goode Jr. as the basso profundo Don Antonio, leader of a gang plotting against the duke, the tenor-hero Don Basilio, played by Muddle - excuse me, I meant -- Michael Nutter.
It ends in a sword fight, with the winner and the chorus singing:
Of course, if journalists could write musicals, plays and operas, we wouldn't be covering budget fights. We'd be depositing royalty checks. Life is unfair that way.
The sides in these battaglia's do try to inject some drama into them. There is, for instance, what I call the "Kill the Kitty" gambit. You take the axe to popular services to create a public outcry that pressures the other side to do what you want.
Mayor Nutter is playing the "Kill the Kitty" gambit in his dispute with Council over the budget and taxes. When Council shot down the sugary-drink tax, the mayor retaliated by outlining a series of cuts.
He could have told Council: "If you don't give me more I am going to leave unfilled numerous positions in the Records, Public Property and Finance Department to make up the difference!
Nobody would have cared.
Instead, he announced cuts in police and fire services and public libraries. He threatened to kill the kitten.
The problem with these gambits is that they are...gambits. No one tends to take them seriously. People figure the mayor will muddle through with what he has and won't resort to actually killing the kitty.
Besides, the mayor and Council are not fighting over a budget deficit. They are fighting over the size of the city's surplus. The mayor wants it closer to $65 million, to cover unexpected costs. Council says he should be fine with a $42 million surplus. So there.
This is a fluid situation and is likely to change - for two reasons.
One happened just this week. Real estate tax revenues are lagging behind estimates to the tune of $14 million so far. Budget Director Steve Agostini promptly messaged city departments and told them to get ready to make more cuts.
Second, to a degree, the city's budget is phony. It totals $3.9 billion and seems to have every 'i" dotted and "t' crossed, but it includes as a line item $25 million in savings on fringe benefit costs. In fact, there are no savings. The city has yet to negotiate new contracts with most of its unions and they have shown no inclination to cut benefits.
Second, the budget includes no - as in zero - dollars for wage increases. And the city is unlikely to get through its upcoming contact talks with the fire fighters and blue-collar and white-collar city employees without some wage increases. (The police, who settled first, got wage increases. The others are sure to demand them, too.)
The city and its unions have been in negotiations for a year (that is not a misprint) on new contracts. If the mayor grants wage increases and does not win cuts in benefit costs, these added costs could easily eat up the surplus and send the city into deficit.
The fate of this budget - and of the future of the Nutter administration - rests on how good a job the mayor can do in taming the demands of the unions.
Is he capable to getting them to take zero pay increases and benefits cuts? I think not. That would mean taking a city workers strike and I don't think he has the moxy to take a strike.
But, let us wait and see. This is not the end of this opera. The curtain is going up on Act Three. And it ain't over until the fat lady sings.
Tom Ferrick Jr. is senior editor of Metropolis.