Court ups funding; Christie to comply

Posted: May 24, 2011

TRENTON - Gov. Christie said today that he would comply with a New Jersey Supreme Court decision ordering the state to spend an additional $500 million on education, even though he considers it an "unconstitutional breach" into legislative and executive powers.

The governor, a frequent critic of the court, said the decision is based on the failed theory that "throwing more money at failing schools" is the way to give children the "thorough and efficient education" required under the state constitution.

The 3-2 ruling calls for the extra money to be spent only in the state's neediest districts, known as former Abbott districts, and is far less than the $1.6 billion originally sought by advocates for poor students in a lawsuit claiming that Christie's cuts to education last year were unconstitutional.

The Abbott districts include Camden, Gloucester City, Pemberton Township and Burlington City in South Jersey.

Christie had previously suggested that he may not comply with the court's eventual decision, but today he told reporters at a Statehouse news conference that it was his constitutional obligation to abide by the ruling.

The Republican governor said it is now up to the Democratic-controlled Legislature to decide how to come up with the extra money but reiterated he does not believe in raising taxes on already overburdened residents.

"All of my work is done on this," Christie said, adding that his next step would be to react to the budget legislators deliver to him by the July 1 constitutional deadline.

Assembly Budget Chairman Louis Greenwald countered in an interview with reporters that it is Christie's responsibility to share his thoughts on how to revise the budget to comply with the court order.

"I played sports my whole life and real leaders want the ball when the game is on the line," said Greenwald (D., Camden). "They don't punt it to the other side."

The ruling may not be as hard on the governor's $29.4 billion budget as previously thought because of revised estimates showing that the state can expect hundreds of millions of dollars in unanticipated tax revenue through fiscal 2012.

The administration laid out a plan last week to use the windfall for increasing the pension contribution, bolstering the state surplus, and increasing property tax relief.

Assembly Budget Officer Declan O'Scanlon (R., Monmouth) said, "I don't think it's a tough punt." He supports using the extra cash to meet the court's mandate.

And, he said, there will be talks between legislators and the administration on what to do next.

"It's not going to happen in a vacuum," he said.

Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) said that the state should use the windfall to provide $500 million in additional funding for 174 underfunded districts, on top of the $500 million ordered for the 31 former Abbott districts.

The senator said that he was working off the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services' estimate last week that the state would collect an extra $913 million in revenues, even though the Christie administration certifies final revenue figures and Treasurer Andrew Sidamon-Eristoff told lawmakers that extra revenue will come in at just $502 million.

Officials said the increase was driven by income tax collections from high-earners who saw their wealth rebound as the stock market improved.

Sweeney said the rest of the education spending could come elsewhere from the budget.

"We've never taken any options off the table," he said, when asked whether the Legislature would seek extra revenue through reinstating the so-called millionaire's tax.

The New Jersey School Boards Association echoed Sweeney's point in a statement of its own, saying that it believes in "fair and equitable distribution of state aid," not simply focusing on the former Abbott districts.

The 2008 School Funding Reform Act attempted to help at-risk students in communities throughout New Jersey in middle-income communities, "which suffer from high property tax burdens and still have been unable to fund their education programs at levels considered adequate by the state. Today's court decision does not resolve these matters," the organization said.

The majority opinion by Justices Edwin Stern, Jaynee LaVecchia and Barry Albin said that Christie's cuts to education for fiscal 2011 "have been instrumentally consequential and significant," and that the court's approval of a revised funding formula in 2008 came with the caveat that it be fully funded.

Albin filed a separate concurring opinion calling for funding at the levels required under the 2008 formula for 205 underfunded districts, not just the 31 former Abbotts.

The Christie administration had argued before the court that it should defer to the Legislature on such matters.

The dissenting opinion by Justices Roberto Rivera-Soto and Helen Hoens agreed, saying that that the court was "treading on time-honored constitutional principles" allowing other branches of government to raise revenue and make appropriations.

The dissenting justices called the court's decision a "power grab" ill-becoming for an unelected judiciary.

Chief Justice Stuart Rabner and Virginia Long did not participate in the case.

Christie noted that unlike many past decisions in the long-running Abbott v. Burke case, which called for poorer districts to be funded on par with wealthier ones, this ruling was split.

"This is a sharply divided court," he said.

"You had two justices who said this is absolutely appropriate, what the governor and the Legislature did, and so I'm not laying awake at night worrying about the fact that I did what I did last year," Christie said.

He also referred to Stern, a temporary appointee, as an "illegitimate" judge.

Rivera-Soto said in a separate dissenting opinion that three votes to grant relief "are insufficient because a minimum of four votes is required to grant a substantive motion and that, on jurisprudential grounds, relief such as what is ordered here should not be granted on a 3-to-2 vote."

But the majority wrote that when the court consisted of five people, a vote of three judges has always been sufficient to determine the outcome of a case.


Contact staff writer Maya Rao at 609-989-8990 or mrao@phillynews.com

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