A budget bill that Democratic legislative leaders sent to Gov. Chris Christie earlier this week included more money for preschool education, senior property-tax relief, and several other safety-net programs — all with the goal of providing more help to New Jersey’s most vulnerable residents.
But Christie used his line-item veto pen just hours before the state constitution’s deadline for a new budget last night to slash that new spending. The second-term Republican blamed his cut of nearly all of the monies added to his original budget proposal on the Democrats, faulting them for taking an irresponsible approach to the budget. He said they used inflated revenue projections and were willing to drain surplus to help pay for the increased spending that they proposed.
What was left after the dust settled is a $34.5 billion spending plan that went into effect after midnight as the state started its new fiscal year. The actual difference between the two budgets was minimal in the scheme of things, as Christie slashed $292 million from the Democrat’s budget, while they had added only $275 million to his original proposal. Christie did not hold a public-signing ceremony to announce his action, but instead issued a statement through his press office.
“My budget ensures funding for our students, protects the public safety, provides property-tax relief for our citizens, and preserves vital programs for our most needy and vulnerable populations,” the statement said.
Yet his cuts included $50 million for the state’s Charity Care pool, which is distributed to the New Jersey’s 72 hospitals to help pay for the uninsured; $25 million for the expansion of pre-school education; $45 million for tax relief for seniors; and many cuts and reductions to numerous small programs such as additional funding to fight the Zika virus and money for needle exchange.
Also coming from Christie’s office late last night were two surprise executive orders. The first effectively freezes all state spending on transportations projects that are not “absolutely essential.” That came after lawmakers in the Assembly and Senate couldn’t agree yesterday on a plan to sustain the dwindling state Transportation Trust Fund before its finance plan expired at midnight. But it’s unclear how much of an impact the order will have since much of this year’s $1.6 billion in state-funded transportation spending has already gone out the door.
Also distributed by Christie’s office in a flurry of late-night news releases was an order to hold some state funds in reserve, including aid for struggling cities, until public-employee healthcare plan design committees can find some $250 million in savings that Christie built into his own budget. He said he also wants the state to begin exploring ways to end a complicated reciprocal income-tax agreement with Pennsylvania.
Despite Christie’s last-minute changes to the budget, the final version of the new state spending plan largely resembles the original budget he proposed back in February, even after the governor made a series of changes himself in May as the state faced a projected $1 billion revenue shortfall. There are no new taxes or tax cuts in the budget, and despite past feuds with lawmakers over contributions to the public-employee pension, the state payment will increase by more than $500 million to $1.86 billion in the new budget.
The late hour of his announcement also didn’t keep Democrats from roundly criticizing his budget cuts. Among the casualties was $45 million that had been inserted by Democrats to boost the Senior Freeze property-tax relief program by allowing the income ceiling to rise from $70,000 to $87,007.
“Contrary to the governor’s belief, providing people with the hand up they need is not incompatible with fiscal responsibility,” said Assembly Budget Committee Chair Gary Schaer (D-Passaic). “In fact, both must be central to any plan for our state’s progress.”
The Education Assessment
When it comes to education, not much changed for public schools, as Christie’s initial budget proposal for the distribution of more than $9 billion in state aid remained unchanged. For the vast majority of districts, there was little, if any, change from last year’s aid.
Christie cut a favorite item of state Senate President Steve Sweeney, the $25 million for preschool expansion. The Democrats had added the amount to the budget as a first step to expand by nearly another 100 districts the state’s public funding of full-day preschool for three- and four-year-olds. Currently, 34 districts offer funding for two years of full-day preschool.
State Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), chair of the Senate’s education committee, had initially called for close to $100 million next year to speed the expansion, but said this week that she hoped $25 million could at least get the ball rolling.
For the state’s environmental community, the good news on spending from the new budget year is that the governor signed a separate open-space bill that frees up about $146 million for preservation programs, including protecting farmland and historic buildings, as well as funding buyouts of flood-prone properties.
The budget also diverts another $20 million from the state’s Clean Energy Fund to pay salaries and maintenance at state parks, a provision the governor line-item vetoed in last year’s budget. Besides the new diversion, suggested in the Democrats’ proposed budget, the state will also siphon of another $121 million from the fund to pay energy bills for the state and for New Jersey Transit.
The bad news is that it appears as if the governor left intact $57 million in cuts at the DEP, a carryover from what Christie originally proposed for the agency in February.
How Healthcare Fared
In addition to the aforementioned charity-care cut, health programs fell victim to the governor’s line-item veto pen. He cut $5 million for public health programs, $5 million for a training program for local health officers regarding the Zika virus, and even addiction programs didn’t escape his veto pen. Addiction programs are a cause typically supported by Christie, but this year, he trimmed $2 million from an effort to fund community-based drug treatment programs, leaving roughly $26.7 million to support this work. He also cut $2 million from another fund for addiction services, originally budgeted at more than $38 million.
Christie also slashed a mere $95,000 Democrats tucked into their spending plan to fund expanded clean-needle programs; a bill to allow these programs in communities beyond the five current pilot sites has been approved by the Legislature — with zero money attached — and awaits Christie’s signature.
Along with his vetoes on the budget, Christie took action on a number of bills, including his approval of the Open Space bill. But he vetoed supplemental appropriations of $9.6 million in grants to two hospitals, Newark’s Beth Israel and Trenton’s St. Francis Medical Center.
In what has become an annual ritual, Christie also vetoed $7.5 million in family-planning services.
He also rejected Democrats’ efforts to increase monies for the state’s Work First program, also known as welfare. Monthly payments in that program have not changed in 29 years, standing at $424 a month for a family of three. It is the lowest in the nation.