Christie, Democratic Leaders Nearing Budget Compromise

John Mooney, Mark J. Magyar | June 19, 2013 | Budget
$32.9B budget likely to add some school aid, but no tax cut or vouchers

Gov. Chris Christie and leaders of the Democratic-controlled Legislature expect to reach final agreement by tomorrow on a compromise election-year budget that will be relatively unchanged from the $32.9 billion budget that the governor proposed almost four months ago.

As part of the last-minute budget talks, the state will take out a $13 million charge for additional debt service that would have resulted in about 270 school districts — or 48 percent of the total — suffering net losses in school aid ranging from a few hundred dollars in some districts to more than $200,000 each in East Brunswick and Barnegat, sources close to the negotiation confirmed.

However, the budget will not contain any provision for the first-stage $100 income tax cut for homeowners that has been a popular applause line at town hall meetings for Christie, who has urged Democrats to approve the tax cut on a contingent basis if revenues come in higher than expected.

“Not only won’t there be a tax cut, but the governor didn’t even bring it up,” said one Democrat familiar with the budget talks.

Further, Christie’s push for a $2 million Opportunity Scholarship Grant pilot program that would provide $10,000 vouchers for low-income students in a handful of failing school districts to attend other qualifying public or private schools is “all but dead,” as Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) predicted two weeks ago.

Still, what is developing is a no-drama budget for an election year in which Christie, the Senate and Assembly are all up for reelection, especially compared with two years ago.

Heading into the 2011 legislative elections, the Democratic-controlled Legislature rammed through a budget that used a millionaire’s tax and jacked-up revenue projections to pay for property tax cuts for senior citizens, Earned Income Tax Credits for the working poor, more police, state funding for Planned Parenthood, and a full restoration of the previous year’s state aid cuts for every school district.

Christie slashed all of the Democratic initiatives from the budget, sparking a profanity-laced reaction from Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) and a temporary rupture in the on-again, off-again Christie-Sweeney alliance that had passed controversial pension and health benefit reform legislation the month before.

That won’t be the case this year.

“We’re in good shape. We’re just cleaning up little things here, little things there, but our aim is to get a budget done and get the governor to sign it well before the deadline,” Sweeney said. “I always felt there is just no excuse for the Legislature being in here at 3 a.m., 4 a.m. voting on a budget on June 30.”

“We’re continuing very productive discussions with the Assembly and the administration,” Senate Budget Chairman Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen) said yesterday afternoon. “Within 48 hours, the budget will be completed.”

In fact, Sen. Anthony Bucco (R-Morris) said the Senate Republican caucus might very well be willing to provide the votes needed for an “emergency resolution” to pass the budget bill through the upper house tomorrow, rather than waiting for Monday for the final vote. “If it’s a budget we all agree on, I don’t see why not,” Bucco said.

Sarlo said Christie and Treasurer Andrew Sidamon-Eristoff made it clear that they would use the governor’s unilateral power to certify revenues to lock in a $32.9 billion state budget, and Democratic legislative leaders will go along with that figure because they have to — even though the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services warned that Sidamon-Eristoff’s revenue projections for the remainder of Fiscal Year 2013 and for next year’s FY14 budgets will likely fall $760 million short.

Democrats were “very clear” that the budget needed to contain language showing how Rutgers University planned to apportion its budget among its New Brunswick, Newark and Camden campuses, which was a point of contention in his committee’s review of the merger of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (UMDNJ) medical schools into Rutgers that must be completed by July 1, Sarlo added.

Reflecting the joint effort to take the controversy out of the budget, Weinberg’s push for the state to provide $7.5 billion in funding for Planned Parenthood and other women’s health clinics was approved by the Assembly and Senate budget committees Monday and yesterday as separate legislation, rather than as part of the budget bill.

“Christie was the first governor in the nation who took out money the state had previously earmarked for funding women’s health planning clinics,” Weinberg said. “It makes no sense when this funding would draw down federal dollars on a 9-to-1 matching basis, providing more than $70 million for women’s healthcare for such a small sum.”

Weinberg asserted yesterday that the governor could no longer claim that he could not find $7.5 million in a $31.9 billion budget to support the initiative when he was willing to spend $12 million to fund a special election for the U.S. Senate in October, rather than holding it on the same day as the November general election.

“Whenever it suits his political purpose, the money is there,” Weinberg contended, arguing that Christie opposed the $7.5 million measure on ideological grounds because he is antiabortion, rather than for fiscal reasons.

Predictably, the bill passed the Senate Budget Committee yesterday on a strictly party-line vote, with Democrats voting for it and Republicans in opposition.

With Christie and Sen. Barbara Buono (D-Middlesex), the Democratic gubernatorial candidate, on opposite sides of the abortion debate, Christie can be expected to veto the bill, and Democrats to attempt an override later this summer to make their political point, even though they are guaranteed to fall short of the two-thirds majority needed because of staunch Republican opposition.