Inquirer Editorial: N.J. budget is hit-and-miss

Gov. Christie presents his budget last week.
Gov. Christie presents his budget last week. (RICH SCHULTZ / AP)
Posted: March 03, 2013

Gov. Christie's $32.9 billion budget shows sincere concern for New Jersey's most vulnerable citizens and continues his efforts to stabilize finances, but it disappoints on the environment and education.

Christie swallowed his partisan pride and agreed to expand Medicaid, offered new housing for the disabled, and bolstered his efforts to treat, rather than incarcerate, nonviolent drug offenders.

But the governor needs to push his compassion up a notch by restoring the earned income tax credit for low-income workers and agreeing to increase the state's minimum wage by more than the dollar he proposed. That would give needed relief to thousands of the state's working poor.

The budget Christie presented Tuesday is more sound than last year's, which was built on a mythical 8 percent increase in revenue that never materialized. That estimate, grounded in politics rather than reality, left the state with a $400 million deficit and a downgrade in its credit rating. Christie plans to fill the hole by postponing property-tax rebate checks to elderly and lower-income homeowners. While this is not an ideal solution, it is a far better option than banking on money that will never exist.

The governor has been trying to wean the state from one-shot budget gimmicks, but he tossed a few tricks of his own into the mix this time, detouring money meant for transportation to avoid raising taxes and raiding a clean- energy fund meant for carbon pollution reduction.

Christie's insensitivity to environmental issues was made even more apparent by his cutting the state Department of Environmental Protection's budget by a greater percentage than any other state agency. Reacting to the governor's budget address, Assembly environment committee Chairwoman L. Grace Spencer (D., Essex) noted that there was no mention of funding for open space and farmland preservation.

Christie is ignoring the importance of these programs in a built-out state that's choking on auto emissions and coal-plant pollutants blowing in from points west.

The governor raised school aid to $9 billion, but that only created slight funding increases for some school districts while holding others to last year's levels. His modest funding for higher education was equally disappointing for a state that cannot prosper without a well-educated middle class.

The governor, though, can legitimately claim he is restoring fiscal balance to New Jersey. He kept spending below its 2008 level and budgeted the highest-ever payment to the state pension fund. He said he had no choice but to accept the Affordable Care Act's Medicaid expansion, but he did, and he chose wisely. Expanding Medicaid will save taxpayers $227 million in costs, which will now be picked up by the federal government. That means New Jersey won't have to make painful service cuts or hike taxes.

Christie will be running for reelection this year, and although this budget does not demonstrate the bold vision one might expect, it also doesn't take any foolish election-year risks, which is best in a state that's still trying to pull itself up on its fiscal legs.

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