State lawmakers are planning to hold five public hearings at venues across the state over the next several weeks as they launch the formal process of scrutinizing Gov. Chris Christie’s budget proposal for the next fiscal year.
The hearings will give New Jersey residents, public-policy advocates, and interest groups an in-person opportunity to share with lawmakers what they like and don’t like about the $35.5 billion spending plan that Christie put forward last week.
The Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee will host the first public hearing on Tuesday at Rowan College at Gloucester County in Sewell at 11 a.m. The Senate panel will also hold a hearing later this month in Newark, while the Assembly Budget Committee will hold public hearings this month in Trenton, Glassboro, and Lodi.
The legislative-review process that starts with the five public hearings will culminate in late June with the adoption either of a spending bill based on what Christie, a second-term Republican, has proposed or, as has happened in several recent years, a new version drawn up by the Legislature, which is controlled by Democrats. The state constitution requires that a new budget be in place each year on July 1.
Covering the rising cost of worker benefits
This year, the public hearings come in the wake of a recent push by New Jersey residents for town-hall meetings with their respective representatives in the Republican-controlled U.S. Congress, as issues that could have a big impact on the state budget like the future of the Affordable Care Act and Medicaid have been up for debate in Washington, D.C.
Christie put forward his proposed budget for the 2018 fiscal year during a joint session of the state Legislature in Trenton last week.
The new budget calls for total spending to increase by roughly $1 billion, based on a projected 3.6 percent growth in tax collections. Those estimates come even as several tax cuts are being phased in under a deal Christie brokered last year with Democratic legislative leaders, including a reduction of the sales tax and a full phase-out of the estate tax. Christie’s fiscal year 2018 budget proposal does not call on lawmakers to approve any tax hikes or new tax cuts this year.
Much of the spending increase that is included in Christie’s new budget covers rising costs related to worker benefits, including increasing the state contribution into the underfunded public-employee pension system. A planned $2.5 billion pension payment — up $650 million compared to the current fiscal-year allocation — would set a record for the state. But the pension payment would also fall well short of the estimated $5 billion contribution that actuaries say is needed to help keep the pension system solvent.
Christie’s budget plans for only flat funding of municipal-aid programs and a slight reduction in funding for property-tax relief programs like the Homestead benefit and the “senior freeze” Property Tax Reimbursement. That comes even as the average New Jersey property-tax bill increased by nearly $200 in 2016, to a record high of $8,549. Funding for New Jersey Transit would also be held flat at $427 million.
Flat funding for K-12 school districts
Perhaps the most controversial part of the budget is Christie’s proposal for flat funding the allocations to local K-12 school districts. Christie — who is in his final year in office due to gubernatorial term limits — has never fully funded the state’s school-aid formula, which was enacted in 2008.
Lawmakers this year have been holding a series of hearings across the state as they consider ways to revise the school-funding formula to help offset inequities that have developed as some legislative add-ons that were supposed to be only temporary have instead been left in place, resulting in some districts receiving far more funding than they should under the formula and some others receiving far less. Christie, in this year’s budget address, also called on legislative leaders to make changes to the formula during the budget process in order to make the allocations more fair.
Christie’s budget calls for $430 million in spending to combat substance-abuse disorders and addiction, and $20 million in spending to address the state’s continuing efforts to control elevated lead levels found in thousands of New Jersey children. The budget also plans for a nearly $500 million surplus account, but banks on savings of $125 million from out-of-network healthcare billing reforms that have yet to be adopted.
In addition to the public hearings, cabinet members from Christie’s administration will over the next several months come before the legislative budget panels in Trenton to justify the individual appropriations proposed for their departments. The state treasurer will also appear before the committees, first to review the official revenue forecast, and then to update tax-collection figures and outline any budget changes after April income-tax returns are processed.
The state constitution gives lawmakers the power to draw up the final version of the spending bill. But it also gives the governor broad powers, including the authority to certify the official revenue forecast upon which to base spending. The governor also has line-item veto authority, meaning specific spending items approved by the Legislature can be removed by the governor at the last minute. In addition to requiring a new spending plan by July 1, the state 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. Those who wish to testify can register ahead of time. To register with Senate committee staff, follow this link. To register with the Assembly committee staff, follow this link.
March 14, 11:00 a.m., Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee, Rowan College at Gloucester County, Athletic Education Center, 1400 Tanyard Road, Sewell, NJ
March 15, 9:30 a.m., Assembly Budget Committee, New Jersey State House Annex, Committee Room 11, 125 West State Street, Trenton, NJ
March 21, 10:00 a.m., Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee, Rutgers University, Great Hall, 15 Washington Street, Newark, NJ
March 22, 9:30 a.m., Assembly Budget Committee, Rowan University, Chamberlain Student Center-Eynon Ballroom, 201 Mullica Hill Road, Glassboro, NJ
March 29, 9:30 a.m., Assembly Budget Committee, Felician University, Lodi Campus, Obal Hall, 262 South Main Street. Lodi, NJ