Sweeney, Prieto to Christie: School Funding First, then We’ll Do the Budget

Legislative leaders want governor to agree to school-aid formula independent of budget, so Christie can’t line-item veto changes he doesn’t like in the spending plan

sweeney christie prieto
The constitutional deadline for a new state budget is now less than two weeks away, but Democratic legislative leaders say they won’t introduce a spending bill until they sit down with Gov. Chris Christie at the negotiating table to discuss their new plan to revise the state’s school-funding formula.

Both Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) and Assembly Speaker Vince Prieto (D-Hudson) made their unified position on the fiscal year 2018 spending plan clear during separate interviews yesterday, saying they aren’t willing to send the Republican governor a budget bill and then helplessly watch him make changes to it using the line-item veto.

Instead, Sweeney and Prieto say they will first see if Christie wants to negotiate any tweaks to their school-aid proposal which would increase education funding by $125 million, among other changes, all in an effort to find common ground that all three leaders can accept on a bipartisan basis.

“That’s what we would like, that’s the goal,” Prieto said.

Minor changes

On the budget itself, Sweeney and Prieto have already had their respective caucuses sign off on a spending bill that incorporates only minor changes to Christie’s proposed $35.7 billion spending plan, but for now they’re holding off on its formal introduction. A meeting involving all three leaders is set up for later this week, they said.

“Once we have a conversation with Christie, and whatever we agree to, then we’ll do a budget,” Sweeney said.

But the Democrats’ stance also indicates they will ultimately be willing to hold back introduction of a budget bill until the very last minute, or even risk shutting down state government to ensure more funding for the state’s school-aid law, which Christie has never fully funded during his two terms in office. The state constitution requires that a new budget be in place for the start of the new fiscal year on July 1.

“If we don’t have an agreement, I’m not going to send (the budget) to him,” Sweeney said.

Christie’s office did not respond to a request for comment yesterday on the budget or school-funding issues.

The details of the deal

Although they were at odds for much of the year on the issue of school funding, Sweeney and Prieto announced a deal last week that calls for a total of $146 million in additional state aid to go to nearly 400 school districts that have been underfunded for nearly a decade under the state’s school-funding formula, which was passed in 2008. They also said they consider the money to be a down payment on eventually fully closing a state funding gap that’s as large as $2 billion.

To help pay for some of the proposed boost in school aid in fiscal 2018, an estimated $46 million would be cut from districts that are receiving more than the aid formula requires, in part propped up by so-called adjustment or hold-harmless aid. That will leave a net increase in K-12 aid of $100 million, and another $25 million has been proposed for increased aid for preschool expansion in some districts.

The Democrats’ proposal is a clear rebuttal of a plan Christie put forward last year that called for a more drastic overhaul of the school-funding formula, one that would have seen the state determine aid figures by adopting per-pupil spending of $6,599.

But it’s not certain what Christie’s own opinion of the Democrats’ proposal is because he has yet to weigh in on it publicly. A spokesman said last week that Christie is willing to consider what the Democrats have put forward, but also has some concerns about the fairness of their proposal. Sweeney and Prieto said they’re hoping to get a more in-depth opinion from the governor this week.

No love lost?

“Prieto and I are supposed to meet with him within the next two days,” Sweeney said yesterday. “I don’t think, from what I’ve read so far, I don’t think he’s in love with this, but we won’t know until we sit face-to-face and have a conversation.”

And Prieto said the two leaders would prefer to negotiate a compromise with Christie if he’s willing to work with them rather than sending him their own budget bill with school-aid changes already incorporated into it, leaving it up to Christie to line-item veto spending he doesn’t agree with.

“At the end of the day, you know what you’re getting,” Prieto said of doing the budget via direct negotiations.

Meanwhile, the fiscal 2018 budget bill itself is ready to move forward, said Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee Chairman Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen).

‘Legislative priorities’

Sarlo said there are several “legislative priorities” that are reflected in the Democrats’ version of the budget, including adding more state funding for cancer research and legal assistance. He also said that there’s little interest among lawmakers in taking the budget down to the wire and threatening a shutdown of state government this year.

The last state shutdown occurred in 2006, when then-Gov. Jon Corzine, a Democrat, insisted on hiking the state sales tax but could not come to an agreement with Democratic legislative leaders before the start of the new fiscal year. The impasse lasted a week, with the sales-tax hike eventually being adopted.

But this year, all 120 seats in the Legislature will be on the ballot in November, and Christie is also weakened by an approval rating that measured only 15 percent in the latest poll conducted by Quinnipiac University.

“I don’t think anybody wants a shutdown, and I don’t think the governor wants a shutdown either,” Sarlo said. “I’m confident it’s going to be worked out.”