State lawmakers will hold five public hearings across the state this month as they begin the annual process of reviewing Gov. Chris Christie’s budget for the next fiscal year.
The public hearings will give New Jersey residents, public-policy advocates and interest groups an opportunity to tell lawmakers what they like and don’t like about Christie’s $34.8 billion proposed spending plan before the new fiscal year begins on July 1.
The Assembly Budget Committee will hold the first hearing Wednesday at 9:30 a.m. at Montclair State University. The Assembly panel will also hold hearings this month in Collingswood and Trenton, while the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee has scheduled public hearings in Glassboro and Newark.
The legislative review process for Christie’s new budget will culminate in late June with the adoption either of a spending bill based on what Christie has proposed or, as has happened in several recent years, a new version drawn up by lawmakers at the end of the hearings.
Christie put forward his proposed budget last month during a joint session of the state Legislature in Trenton.
The new budget calls for total spending to increase by roughly $1 billion, based on a projected 3 percent growth in tax collections, and it would also boost the surplus account to nearly $800 million.
Christie’s proposed budget does not call for any tax hikes or tax cuts.
Much of the increase in spending that Christie has proposed would go toward state employee benefits, including boosting the state contribution into the public-employee pension system by $550 million up to $1.86 billion.
But Christie is also counting on roughly $250 million in savings by making changes to employee healthcare plans that have yet to be approved.
The new budget also includes slightly increased funding for schools, although it continues to underfund the state’s school-aid formula, which has happened since Christie’s tenure began in early 2010.
State-funded direct property tax-relief programs will also remain essentially flat-funded for another year under Christie’s proposed budget. That means the tax credits provided through the popular Homestead program and several others won’t keep pace with the nearly $200 growth in the average property tax bill between 2014 and 2015.
The new budget also proposes to continue diverting more than $100 million in Clean Energy funds, running the total that’s been raided from a program that’s supposed to either encourage reductions in energy use or promote cleaner ways of producing energy to well over $1 billion during Christie’s tenure.
During the public hearings, lawmakers are expected to take a lot of testimony on several items that Christie left out of his proposed budget.
Topping that list is the Transportation Trust Fund, which is on course to run out of money by the end of June. Democratic legislative leaders have favored an increase in the state’s gas tax and some new borrowing to extend the fund, but Christie has yet to take a firm position on the issue.
Christie’s proposed spending plan also did not account for the repeal of the state’s estate tax, which he called for earlier this year in his State of the State address and which other Republicans and business-lobbying groups have called a top priority for 2016.
In addition to the public hearings, cabinet members from Christie’s administration will over the next several months come before legislative budget panels in Trenton to justify the individual appropriations proposed for their departments.
And the state’s acting treasurer will also appear before the committees in late March to review the official revenue forecast, and then again in early April to outline any budget changes and to update tax-collection figures.
At the end of the budget-review process, lawmakers can either adopt Christie’s budget proposal unchanged or send the governor their own budget bill, which they did last year after they could not reach an agreement with the governor on how much the state should contribute into the public-employee pension system.
The state constitution requires lawmakers and the governor to have a new budget in place by July 1. And it gives Christie ultimate say because the constitution gives the governor the power to veto the budget bill or remove specific spending categories using the line-item veto. The constitution also requires every state budget to be balanced, which means deficit spending is strictly prohibited.
Following is a list of this year’s legislative public hearings on the budget. More information is also available by calling the nonpartisan New Jersey Office of Legislative Services at (609) 847-3105 or by going to www.njleg.state.nj.us.
March 9, 9:30 a.m., Assembly Budget Committee, Montclair State University, University Hall Conference Center, 1 Normal Avenue, Montclair, NJ
March 15, 11 a.m., Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee, Rowan University, Chamberlain Student Center, 201 Mullica Hill Road, Glassboro, NJ
March 16, 9:30 a.m., Assembly Budget Committee, Scottish Rite Auditorium, 315 White Horse Pike, Collingswood, NJ
March 21, 9:30 a.m., Assembly Budget Committee, State House Annex, Committee Room 11, 125 West State Street, Trenton, NJ
March 22, 10 a.m., Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee, New Jersey Institute of Technology, Campus Center Atrium, 150 Bleeker Street, Newark, NJ