By Mark J. Magyar
Star Ledger
May 17, 2011

Chris Christie is never mentioned in the New Jersey Network documentary, “The Power of the Governor.” But anyone who wants to understand how a governor whose party does not control either house of the Legislature can force his will should watch this well-crafted — and timely — documentary.

The film takes a historical perspective in viewing the governorship through the eyes of Govs. Brendan Byrne, Tom Kean, Jim Florio and Christie Whitman, who led New Jersey from 1974 to 2001. The documentary, which also includes interviews with former government officials, reporters and academics, will be broadcast on NJN tonight at 8, Thursday at 10 p.m. and Sunday at 11 a.m.

“Since 1947, the New Jersey governorship has been a bold experiment in executive power,” said narrator Kent Manahan, the former NJN news anchor. The 1947 constitution made New Jersey’s governor the most powerful in the nation.

The governor heads the only New Jersey ticket that is voted on statewide (the lieutenant governor is elected automatically on the same ticket). He appoints thousands of executive department officials, judges, commissioners and authority members. He not only proposes the budget, but has the sole authority to certify the revenues — to decide how big the final budget will be. He has a nonreviewable line-item veto over all expenditures.

The governor can veto the actions of authorities and commissions simply by refusing to sign the minutes. He can conditionally veto legislation — making his own changes in proposed laws. His vetoes require a two-thirds override by the Legislature, and only twice in the past 64 years has an opposition party enjoyed a two-thirds majority in both houses.

He also has the ability to effectively make law by issuing sweeping executive orders, as Byrne did with his landmark executive order preserving the vast Pinelands. 
“The Power of the Governor” is also a reminder that Christie wasn’t the first New Jersey governor to seize the bully pulpit.

Whitman defeated Florio in 1993 by promising a 30 percent income tax cut, but while her Republican Party controlled the Legislature, its leadership balked at the tax cut. “I figured the only way I could get started was to announce the bill in my inaugural,” Whitman recalls “And I didn’t tell them about it ahead of time.”

Taken by surprise by Whitman’s inaugural address call for a retroactive 5 percent income tax, GOP Senate President Donald DiFrancesco acknowledged defeat with the quip, “I knew it was going to be January 1st. I just didn’t have the year straight.”

Whitman’s use of the bully pulpit “made her a Republican star,” veteran NJN political reporter Michael Aron said.

But the ability that New Jersey governors have to dominate the stage can be a double-edged sword. “If New Jersey’s constitution makes the governor powerful, it also makes them vulnerable,” said Jon Shure, Florio’s former communications director, because they become the focus of public outrage over unpopular policies. The NJN documentary shows vividly the mass anti-tax protests that followed Florio’s $2.8 billion tax hike in 1990. The protests were boosted by funding from the NRA, which was angered by Florio’s assault weapons ban.

“The Power of the Governor” is the type of documentary that only NJN would make, and its extensive use of film clips from past administrations is a subtle reminder that it has filled the television news void in the absence of a commercial television station covering the state.

Ironically, NJN itself is testimony this year to “The Power of the Governor.” Christie’s budget eliminated all funding for NJN and he has directed his treasurer to meet with bidders interested in acquiring the state-owned station. The Democratic Legislature could restore NJN’s funding, but under powers granted by the 1947 constitution, Christie’s line item veto of that funding would be final.

Statehouse insiders often say, “It takes 41, 21 and one to get anything done,” referring to the 41 votes needed to pass a bill in the Assembly, 21 in the Senate and the governor to sign it.

In New Jersey, “The Power of the Governor” is such that sometimes it just takes one.

Mark J. Magyar covered Govs. Byrne, Kean and Florio as a Statehouse correspondent, and served as deputy chief of policy and planning for Gov. Whitman. He teaches labor studies at Rutgers University.