Democrats' budget appears to be reversal of course

Posted: June 29, 2012

TRENTON - Democrats reacted angrily last year when Gov. Christie used his line-item veto to delete various allocations for New Jersey's most vulnerable residents.

This week, they flipped the script. They passed a budget that included cuts affecting constituencies their party often fights to protect.

The Democrats' budget reduces spending on welfare, substance-abuse initiatives, and programs for abused children. The trims enabled them to propose a $31.7 billion spending plan, slightly smaller than Christie's.

Each cut is based on analysis by the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services, which does research for legislators, Democrats explained. Most changes, they said, were based on how much was actually spent on the programs in recent fiscal years vs. what the administration allotted. Recipients are unlikely to notice a difference, they said.

"It's about analyzing the budget and realizing where cuts can be made without endangering core programs," said Derek Roseman, a Senate Democratic spokesman. "These are people we care about, and the programs will be there for them."

Christie could act on the Democrats' budget any time between now and Saturday, the last day of fiscal 2012. He could veto the whole plan or individual elements.

He can't add funds, however. So for programs Democrats cut deeper than Christie wanted, money would have to be added later in supplemental appropriations bills. That happened last year, when one Christie cut - aid to poor cities - was restored.

They're "inexplicable and deeply ill-informed," said Michael Drewniak, Christie's spokesman, of the Democrats' budget changes.

"Why would the Legislature make millions of dollars in cuts in programs of this kind, benefiting troubled youth and families? It makes no sense. They seemed to be just blind, arbitrary reductions."

Democrats' funding cuts where the party's explanation conflicts with data from the Christie administration:

  • $7.5 million from Child Protection and Permanency Services, which investigates child-abuse allegations and makes arrangements to protect children. Democrats say the state should qualify for additional federal funds to replace the $7.5 million, meant for salaries, but the administration says it is unlikely so much more federal money is available. The cut would put expenditures for the program below the current level.

  • $3 million from Mobile Response and Stabilization Services, which responds to crises involving emotionally and behaviorally challenged children. Democrats say the cut is based on a projection by the state that the number of cases will remain steady. That is inaccurate, says the administration, which says a growing number of children are being treated through mobile response rather than in more-expensive residential services. Additionally, the state would lose Medicaid's funding match of up to 50 percent - resulting in 4,400 fewer dispatches to youths in crisis, according to administration data.

  • $1 million from the Intensive In-home Behavioral Assistance program, which provides counselors for families with children who have emotional or behavioral problems. Democrats say this reduction is based on a downward trend in caseloads, but the state says it needs to increase resources because of a realignment of services. The total cut would be greater than $1 million due to the Medicaid match.

  • $1 million from substance-abuse initiatives. Democrats contend this area has been historically overfunded by 15 percent to 20 percent. The administration, however, says programs would have to be reduced to support the cut.

  • $5.9 million from technology upgrades in the state's WorkFirst NJ welfare program. Roseman has said this "discretionary" spending can be deferred. The administration disagrees.

  • $2 million from the welfare program that funds Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. Democrats say the Office of Legislative Services believes the current caseload does not justify the administration's proposed allocation, but the administration says the funds are needed. And as an entitlement program, payments cannot be withheld, forcing the state to tap money from elsewhere.

Contact Matt Katz at 609-217-8355 or mkatz@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @mattkatz00. Read his blog, "Christie Chronicles," at www.philly.com/ChristieChronicles.

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