Gov. Chris Christie yesterday wielded his veto pen to carve out close to a billion dollars -- including the bulk of new school aid -- from the Democrats’ spending plan approved the day before. He then signed the $29.7 billion state budget for the fiscal year starting today.
As expected, he also flatly vetoed the Democrats’ proposed millionaire’s tax, which was contained in a separate bill that even its sponsors didn’t think would survive.
While the governor's signature ended the 11th hour drama as to whether the state government might shut down, his aggressive line-item vetoes hardly brought peace to the Democratic-led legislature.
Gone was any of the good will of just two days ago when Christie and Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) stood together to sign landmark pension and health benefit bills.
"This is the most disappointing day since I’ve been in the legislature," Sweeney said in a press conference following Christie’s late-afternoon budget announcement. Sweeney, who said he had not spoken with Christie, would not say for sure if the Democrats would seek to override any of the cuts. But Sweeney sounded like someone preparing for yet another battle.
"This budget is cruel and mean-spirited and only to prove a point that he’s in charge," Sweeney said. "But we will fight back."
The Senate is expected back in Trenton next week, likely Thursday, and Sweeney said he would speak with other legislative leaders first before deciding next steps.
Christie’s line-item vetoes -- more than 110 in all from the main budget bill -- essentially restored the budget that the Republican governor had proposed three months before -- save a few key exceptions.
A big one was $447 million ordered by the state Supreme Court in the latest Abbott v. Burke ruling for 31 high-poverty school districts, an addition that Christie renounced but did not resist. He also saved $150 million in additional aid to school districts across the state, essentially restoring another fifth of the 5 percent he had cut last year. He had already proposed an increase of $250 million.
But the cuts were more notable. He rejected the Democrats proposal to restore all of his 2010 cuts to schools, not to mention a host of other projects and programs. He again vetoed an additional $7.5 million for women’s healthcare centers. He took out $50 million in new public safety funds for high-crime cities and towns. And he rejected a reinstatement of the earned income tax credit he cut this year. An additional $3 million for after-school programs was zeroed out, as was even a few hundred thousand for salaries and wages in the Assembly and Senate’s own staff.
"I will not give in to their tax-and-spend agenda, no matter how many times they and their special interests try to demagogue me to do so," Christie said.
In what is sure to be a contentious move that saves about $9 million, he also vetoed a line item that would have prevented reductions in Medicaid eligibility to exclude families making more than $5,000. Cuts to the Democrats' budget for Health and Human Services were among the steepest, coming to more than $100 million in all.
Some cuts were very precise, including just a word or two in the Democrats’ budget bill that changed the whole meaning of the appropriation.
The Medicaid veto was a case in point, where the governor's team eliminated a handful of key words -- like "not," "all," and "any" -- to entirely reverse the Democrat's intentions. For example, Christie turned a clause that was intended to block new co-pays, stave off a cap on federal funding, and prevent reductions in eligibility into language that mirrored his own ideas for Medicaid reform.
Many of Christie's arguments yesterday were on how the Democrats’ estimates of both revenues and potential savings exceeded his own, leaving a wide gap that he said would have led to an "unconstitutional and unbalanced" budget.
"Simply put, they made up [the numbers] so they could spend it,” he said. "You can’t do that in your own house, and I won’t allow it in the Statehouse,” he added.
The school aid vetoes took the budget back to much of the language he had first proposed. This did away with the Democrats’ efforts to steer the bulk of an additional $600 million in aid to 215 suburban districts currently underfunded. The close to $90 million left would be parceled out to the remainder of the districts.
Instead, Christie agreed to $150 million more than his original proposal but spread evenly across all non-Abbott districts, each getting an amount roughly equal to another 1 percent of its overall budgets.
He maintained that the new money amounted to a full restoration of the state funding that was cut from the year before, and then some. But it was a semantic point, since districts are still well below what they received previously due to the loss of federal stimulus funds to the state.
And the new money will likely come with some strings, as the governor said he would instruct his administration to provide "very precise advice" as to districts in how to spend the money, including putting off major new expenses to the following year. He pointed out that districts had already struck their own budgets and prepared their tax bills.
"I want very precise guidance and not have it that the money is just lost in the ether," he said.
However, Christie said he was unlikely to have the authority to put much restriction on Abbott districts, given the court's edict that they receive full funding under the state's school finance law. Some of the districts will see as much as 20 percent to 30 percent increases in their aid, including more than $80 million in additional funds to Elizabeth.
"That’s a different story," he said. "It is mandated by the court to utilize, and my ability to put guidance on that is on less than firm legal ground. . . I’ll let sleeping dogs lie."