After Sandy emergency aid, N.J. lawmakers look at budget for Shore recovery

Posted: November 12, 2012

Gov. Christie and lawmakers have spent the last two weeks arranging for food, shelter, and federal financial help for residents in areas ravaged by Hurricane Sandy.

But eventually, they will have to shed their fleece jackets and return to Trenton, where a tight - some argue deficient - budget also requires attention.

The Senate is scheduled to resume committee meetings on Thursday and the Assembly plans to reconvene next Monday.

Leaders in both chambers plan hearings on infrastructure repairs and improvements and other Sandy-related recovery issues.

"We were worried about the budget before the storm," said Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester), who sounded exhausted in a phone interview Friday afternoon. "We've got a couple of things here. We're struggling financially, and we depend on our summer economy. The tourism is such a big industry in New Jersey, and we're seeing if we can get the Shore rebuilt in time. All the way around, it's a lot to take in."

Sweeney said he and other leaders didn't want to just "throw legislation" at the problem: They want to figure out the smartest way to rebuild. Storms like Sandy and Irene may become more common, given rising sea levels.

"This has really turned us upside down," Sweeney said.

"The first reaction is, 'Let's make everybody do everything,' " he said, citing calls to require gas stations, senior centers, and other businesses to have backup generators. "But we have to take a real in-depth look at how we go forward, so that when we rebuild, we are doing it understanding that this is the new norm."

All this while a different storm may be brewing: Wall Street credit rating agencies have wagged fingers at New Jersey all year, knocking the Christie administration for what they deem overly optimistic revenue projections and an insufficient surplus.

The $31.7 billion budget Christie signed June 30 depends on a robust 7 percent revenue growth with $500 million as a surplus buffer.

So far this year, the state has missed the revenue mark every month and revenue is now $175 million below expectations. To meet Christie's budget goals, revenue must grow at 10 percent for the remainder of the fiscal year, which ends June 30.

Lawmakers warned that cuts could be necessary should the trend continue.

Then Sandy hit.

The federal government is expected to cover some costs, but how much and how soon remains unknown.

"It's too early to say, and it's something that will be addressed going forward," Christie spokesman Michael Drewniak said Friday.

In a radio interview last week with NJ 101.5, Christie said he was not fretting.

"If it turns out that there are moneys that need to be incurred, I'm going to incur them and we'll make budget cuts elsewhere to be able to pay for them," he said. "I think we'll be OK from a budgetary perspective."

Senate Budget Committee Chairman Paul Sarlo (D., Bergen) said on Friday that President Obama had made a "significant commitment" to rebuilding the Jersey Shore, an area that greatly contributes to the state's economy.

"I just don't want to jump to any conclusions yet," he said, adding that he believed whatever Sandy's costs, the budget would be managed "in a bipartisan manner."

The Fitch rating agency issued a statement Thursday indicating the state's underperforming revenue and relatively small surplus made buying state debt tied to anticipated tax revenue slightly riskier than it had been. The statement accompanied the state's sale of $2.6 billion in revenue-anticipation notes to cover cash-flow shortages.

Fitch noted that "significant federal reimbursement" was expected, but "the magnitude of expenses that will need to be covered by the state and how the state will fund those costs given its narrow cash balances prior to receiving [federal] reimbursements is uncertain."

Asked about Fitch's comments and the budget, Andrew Pratt, a spokesman for the state Treasury, referred to Christie's comments earlier this week.

Christie has another item on his to-do list:

With Obama heading into a second term, Christie must decide whether the state will run its own online marketplace in which people and some businesses can look to buy health insurance at competitive rates.

Christie, a Republican, had delayed a decision in the event that Mitt Romney won the election and repealed Obama's health-care law.

The Legislature, controlled by Democrats, sent Christie a bill in the fall that would allow the state to create its own exchange. Christie can sign it, veto it, or ignore it.

As of Friday, Drewniak had given no hint as to the governor's intentions.

"Of course, we'll advise when we are prepared to make policy announcements," he said. "No pre-announcements."

The deadline for state governors to decide whether to set up exchanges was extended Friday to Dec. 14. The previous deadline was Nov. 16.

Contact Joelle Farrell at 856-779-3237, or follow on Twitter at @joellefarrell.

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