New Jersey budget process enters home stretch

Gov. Christie restored some funding he had sought to cut.
Gov. Christie restored some funding he had sought to cut.
Posted: June 23, 2010

TRENTON - The final stretch of state budget season is under way, as senators meet Wednesday to discuss the $29.38 billion spending plan agreed to by Gov. Christie and the legislative leadership on Monday evening.

The Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee will meet Wednesday and Thursday to finish work on the budget, which is similar to what Christie proposed but includes $74 million in restored funding as a part of Monday's compromise.

The committee will also consider a bill sponsored by Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) to impose a 2.9 percent legislative cap on property-tax increases.

The proposal follows one by Christie that would seek voter approval to amend the constitution to cap tax increases at 2.5 percent. The governor will be on Sweeney's turf Wednesday to rally support as part of a series of town hall meetings on the cap.

On Tuesday, standing with several dozen of the 210 mayors who support the 2.5 percent cap, Christie called on the legislature to consider resolutions that have been introduced to put the measure on the ballot but have not been posted for a vote.

The Assembly will meet Thursday and Friday for hearings on budget-related legislation and Sweeney's cap proposal. Final votes by both houses are set for Monday, two days before the constitutional deadline to approve the budget.

Statehouse leaders have agreed to restore certain funding for health care and general assistance to the poor and disabled, scholarships, day care, and resources for cultural organizations.

Christie said Tuesday that he made changes in areas that were "vitally important to the Legislature," but said he would not expand his budget or compromise core principles on which he campaigned.

The restoration of $3.5 million for the State Commission of Investigation (SCI) was a victory for Democratic leaders, who pushed hard to maintain the commission's independence from the governor's office.

The Christie administration had proposed folding diminished functions of the legislatively funded SCI into the state Comptroller's Office, which falls under the executive branch.

Christie said Tuesday the money had been restored because "the Democrats in the Legislature wanted it."

Even with the restorations, "overall, this budget is devastating to working families, and we're urging the Legislature to reject the budget," said Bill Holland, spokesman for the New Jersey Working Families Alliance.

Mary Coogan, assistant director of the Association for Children of New Jersey, expressed concern that funding was not restored for cuts to school meals, the child advocate's office, and parental enrollment in the FamilyCare program.

"While isolated, when you start to add them up on the same family, it is going to be a struggle in an already difficult economic time," she said.

New Jersey Legal Services, which provides free legal assistance to low-income residents, had also hoped for restored funding. Now it says it could lose 100 staff members.

"It's plain and simple: Over the next 12 months, 11,000 more people who badly need legal representation won't get it," said the group's president, De Miller.

Miller asked why legal services were a lower priority than maintaining blue laws in Bergen County, which keep retailers closed on Sundays and result in millions in foregone tax revenue.

Cuts of $7.5 million to family planning also were not restored. Michele Jaker, executive director of the Family Planning Association of New Jersey, said the cuts to preventive H>care, including low-cost birth control, breast exams, and Pap smears were "fiscally irresponsible."

She said estimates show that every $1 spent on family planning saves the state $4. Lawmakers in both houses are now looking to bring back that aid.

The Senate introduced a bill Monday to make a supplemental appropriation for women's health and planning, and four Assembly Democrats announced on Tuesday that they would do the same.


Fiscal Year 2011 N.J. Budget

Property-tax rebates: Would suspend all property-tax rebates in 2010. Gov. Christie has proposed having the relief return in May 2011, when homeowners would receive the first of four quarterly credits on their tax bills. The credits would total what homeowners received in 2009, but the budget contains funding for only the first payment of 25 percent. The rest would come from future spending plans.

Tax breaks for seniors: Calls for stopping new enrollment in the "senior tax freeze" program, which holds down property-tax bills for older citizens.

Education and municipal aid: Would cut school aid by $819 million, or 7.4 percent, and municipal aid by $446 million, or 23 percent. Support for higher education would result in cuts to colleges and scholarship programs.

Property-tax cap: Proposes a hard cap of 2.5 percent on property-tax increases. A local government that wants to exceed the limit would need voter approval. To help municipalities and schools, Gov. Christie would reshape rules concerning contract negotiations to give more leverage to mayors and school boards.

Benefits to low-income residents: Calls for reducing several programs and benefits for those with low incomes, including trimming a tax credit for the working poor and child-care programs.

Other taxes: The budget would raise no major taxes - sales, income, or corporate - and would allow a 4 percent surcharge on corporate business taxes to expire. An income-tax increase on filers earning $400,000 or more expired in December and was not renewed.

Overall spending: Would cut spending of state funds and federal stimulus money to $29.4 billion - down 8.8 percent from $32.2 billion in the plan Christie inherited in January.


Contact staff writer Maya Rao at 856-779-3220 or mrao@phillynews.com.

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