N.J. budget gets a go-ahead for early approval

The $33 billion plan contains no new taxes, while offering tax rebates. There's also aid for schools, hospitals, towns.

Posted: June 19, 2007

TRENTON - The New Jersey Senate and Assembly budget committees yesterday advanced a $33.48 billion state spending plan that funds a 20 percent property-tax rebate for most homeowners, contains no new taxes, and increases aid for hospitals, towns and school districts.

The budget bill now heads to the full Assembly and Senate, where it is expected to win approval Thursday, setting the stage for one of the earliest enacted budgets in recent history.

Last year, Gov. Corzine and lawmakers broke by more than a week the June 30 constitutional deadline to have a new spending plan in place, forcing a shutdown of government services. All vowed to start - and finish - the process early this year in order to avoid a repeat.

Corzine, who reached agreement on major spending issues with legislative leaders last week, yesterday called the resulting bill "a very good budget." But he said he would still "scrub [it] down in detail" before signing it into law.

This year, he has time.

"It'll be a little less interesting than last year," he told reporters outside Drumthwacket, the governor's official residence in Princeton.

The timing of the budget isn't the only thing that changed this year.

In years past, majority-party legislators have slipped hundreds of millions of dollars into the budget at the last minute to pay for pet projects in their districts. But amid a federal investigation into whether lawmakers personally benefited from the last-minute grants, this year they had to attach their names to their requests and submit them early for public review.

And Corzine, who has the power to veto individual line items in the budget, warned them that he was much more likely to agree to fund projects that have a regional or statewide impact - not flagpoles for individual townships.

In the end, Democratic legislative leaders say they added between $10 million and $15 million in mostly regional and statewide pet projects. Republicans say the figure is far higher - including hundreds of millions in extra aid for troubled towns and school districts that they say benefits Democratic districts.

Saying the budget, as a whole, was fiscally irresponsible, most GOP legislators on the budget committees voted against it yesterday.

The Assembly panel passed the budget bill, 9-3, with every Republican but Francis Blee (R., Atlantic) opposing it. The Senate committee endorsed the proposal, 9-5, with one abstention, in a vote that similarly fell along party lines. The only Republican senator not to vote against the bill was Martha Bark (R., Burlington), who abstained, saying she needed more time to make up her mind on a budget that "has a lot of good things, but some things lacking."

Senate Minority Leonard Lance (R., Hunterdon) said he was happy the spending plan authorized no new borrowing or taxes. But, he said, it failed to address a $2.5 billion structural deficit, and did not include a new school aid formula that Democrats had promised to deliver as part of a monthslong effort to reduce property taxes. Many suburban legislators have complained that their middle-class constituents are getting unduly slammed by school costs - and property taxes - because the state isn't doling out aid fairly.

Lance also questioned whether the $2 billion inserted into the budget to pay for property-tax rebates could be sustained in future years.

Sen. Nicholas Asselta (R., Cape May) complained that the budget - more than $2.5 billion higher than the current spending plan - was far too big.

"The problem is discipline," Asselta said. "Where is the discipline?"

Most Democrats, meanwhile, praised the budget, saying it met important needs without raising taxes.

But even some of those who voted for the spending plan were critical of some of its elements. Sen. Barbara Buono (D., Middlesex) agreed with Lance that the plan should have contained a new school funding formula.

"Failure to deliver on that is inexcusable," she said.

Sen. Paul Sarlo (D., Bergen) complained that some legislators had managed to get local projects for their districts into the budget, despite the mandate that the grants go to regional causes.

He pointed to several countywide projects, such as veterans affairs funding - requested by Sen. Fred Madden (D., Gloucester) - for Camden and Gloucester Counties.

"If we're gonna do this across the board, then take it all [local projects] out," Sarlo said.

Corzine yesterday said he would examine all the requests closely and "won't be afraid" to use his line-item veto power.

"I don't want to prejudge any individual project at this point. But we've been pretty clear about what we would like to see. It should have broader impact," he said. "Some of that is in the eye of the beholder."

Sen. Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) said it would just be easier to ban all legislative pet projects.

But overall, he said, the result was a "decent budget."

"It's a C+ or B. But that beats what we did before," he said.

He praised legislators this year for making the process more transparent and manageable. Last year, he said, everything was so rushed that "we were reading things as we were voting on them."

Assembly Budget Committee Chairman Louis Greenwald (D., Camden) said the budget process "isn't just better than last year."

"It's better than any year," he said. "Every line item in this budget has been reached through an open process."


N.J. Budget Highlights

A look at New Jersey's budget proposal for the fiscal year that starts July 1:

The bottom line - $33.48 billion budget, up about 8.7 percent.

Property taxes - A 14 percent increase in property-tax relief, largely to provide a 20 percent rebate to homeowners making $100,000 or less, a 15 percent rebate to those making between $100,000 and $150,000, and a 10 percent rebate to those making between $150,000 and $250,000.

Social services - Eliminates proposed copayments on Medicaid prescription drugs, hospital visits and medical day care.

Health care - A 23 percent increase in state aid to help hospitals pay for treating uninsured patients, boosting total hospital aid to $776 million.

Schools - A 3 percent state aid increase to most schools, which would be the largest state aid increase since 2000. Money would be used to help cut property taxes.

- Associated Press


Contact staff writer Jennifer Moroz at 609-989-8990 or jmoroz@phillynews.com.

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