With a constitutional deadline for a new budget now just two weeks away, Democratic legislative leaders say they’re preparing to introduce their own spending bill rather than negotiate a bipartisan agreement with Gov. Chris Christie.
Doing so will enable lawmakers to focus on some of their own core priorities that Christie has steadfastly opposed, like boosting funding for women’s healthcare, said Senate President Stephen Sweeney during a recent interview with NJ Spotlight editors and reporters. Plus, Christie has already hinted to lawmakers that he’s not interested in working out a bipartisan spending plan this year, Sweeney said.
“We would have loved to have had a negotiated budget. The governor won’t negotiate with us,” said Sweeney (D-Gloucester).
Christie’s office declined comment yesterday.
The pending advancement of a Democratic budget bill rather than a negotiated spending plan based on the $34.5 billion proposal put forward by Christie earlier this year means that for the third straight year the state’s annual budget will likely be enacted via Christie’s line-item veto pen. The last negotiated spending plan was passed in 2013 when Christie was up for reelection along with the entire Legislature.
The last-minute work on the fiscal 2017 budget will give the governor and lawmakers yet another big task to complete over the next two weeks. They also need to figure out how to renew financing for the state Transportation Trust Fund before the existing five-year finance plan runs out on June 30. A bipartisan plan to raise the state gas tax by 23 cents was put forward last week, but it has yet to be put up for a vote in either house.
Assembly Speaker Vince Prieto (D-Hudson) confirmed in an interview yesterday that budget talks are underway between leaders in both houses, but he wouldn’t commit to an exact date for introduction of the Democrats’ budget bill. The Senate and Assembly both have quorums scheduled for Monday, and voting sessions scheduled for June 23, 27, and 30.
“We’re working through all the details now to try and get it to the respective caucuses,” Prieto said.
The New Jersey Constitution gives the governor broad budgeting powers, including the responsibility to propose an annual spending plan and the power to declare how much revenue the state should expect to take in during the course of the fiscal year.
The constitution also gives lawmakers appropriation authority, meaning they draft and advance the actual budget bill. But the governor has the ability to remove spending using the line-item veto — a power Christie hasn’t been shy about exercising. It sets a July 1 deadline for a balanced budget to be in place each year.
In recent years, the main sticking point on the budget between Christie and lawmakers has been how much money the state should be contributing to the public-employee pension system, which is grossly underfunded. Democrats have called on Christie to live up to annual contribution amounts that were included in his own 2011 benefits-reform law, but the governor has maintained the state cannot afford to make those payments, a position backed up by the state Supreme Court last year.
This year, Christie and Democratic legislative leader are generally on the same page when it comes to pension funding in the new budget. The governor is proposing to increase the state contribution by more than $500 million during the next fiscal year to reach a total of $1.86 billion, a number Democrats have determined to be acceptable.
Still, Sweeney said Christie has made it clear he has no intention of working with Democratic leaders on a broader budget bill. The governor is also sitting back this year and letting lawmakers work out on their own the best way to renew the transportation fund. But it was Christie who authored the current five-year finance plan back in 2011.
“It’s unfortunate, but it’s the reality that we’re dealing with,” Sweeney said
“We’re working with the Assembly on the priorities that we think need to be placed in there,” he added. “There’s going to be some obvious ones that we put in that he’s going to veto, but we only do it because we believe in it, like women’s health.”
Christie and lawmakers have a long history when it comes to fighting over funding for women’s healthcare, dating back to the beginning of his tenure in early 2010.
The funding that’s been at issue, totaling $7.5 million, is just a small fraction of overall spending and used to be a routine allocation under recent governors. It covered reproductive health services, including cancer screenings, birth control, testing, and treatment for sexually transmitted diseases; it did not pay for abortions.
When the money was first trimmed out of the budget in 2010, Christie cited state budget problems and said similar services could be provided by federally funded clinics. But as a candidate for president last year, Christie pointed to his continued efforts to block Democratic attempts to restore the funding as evidence of his anti-abortion bona fides and steadfast opposition to Planned Parenthood.
Other priority areas that Democrats could devote more funding to in their own budget this year include grants for cancer research and safety-net programs. And there has also been bipartisan support this year for increasing funding for the Educational Opportunity Fund which benefits low-income college students.
Prieto, a former Assembly Budget Committee chairman, said leaders in the two houses met on Tuesday to go over the budget, and he said they shouldn’t have a problem getting something to Christie this year well before the constitutional deadline.
“We’re working together. We’re trying to iron out what will make it into the bill and what will end up on the cutting-room floor,” Prieto said.