New Jersey’s public schools were the center of attention on a busy first day of Statehouse hearings and deliberations on the fiscal 2011 state budget.
State Treasurer Andrew Sidamon-Eristoff testified before the Assembly Budget Committee for nearly four hours today, explaining and fending off questions on Gov. Chris Christie’s controversial $28.3 billion spending plan.
Much of the question focused on the new governor’s proposals for steep spending reductions to close a multi-billion revenue gap, led by an unprecedented $1.1 billion in state aid cuts to schools.
The aid cuts—averaging close to 20 percent reduction from last year’s totals—have caused outcry in scores of districts, leading to plans for deep layoffs and programs cuts next year. (A newfinds Christie’s approval ratings falling 12 points in the month since his budget was proposed.)
Democrats on the Assembly’s budget committee seized on the school cuts in their own districts to quiz Sidamon-Eristoff, claiming they will only lead to increases in local property taxes and amount to the kind of tax hikes that Christie has otherwise said he would veto.
“Gov. Christie has vowed to veto any budget that includes a tax increase,” said the committee’s chairman, Assemblyman Lou Greenwald, D-Camden, in his opening statement.
“But as the testimony we will hear in the coming weeks will show, he’s going to have to veto his own budget,” he said. “Just about everything vital to working class New Jerseyans and senior citizens would be taxed, slashed or eliminated by Gov. Christie.”
With other Democrats picking up the same line of questioning, Sidamon-Eristoff said that would be a misrepresentation of Christie’s proposal.
“Respectfully, I don’t agree with your characterization,” he said to one committee member. “We can agree to disagree.”
He said the reductions should instead prompt districts to look to cost savings, and he repeated Christie’s call for the schools and their unions to reopen contracts to come up with wage freezes and other concessions. Sidamon-Eristoff said local spending has risen 69 percent in the last decade.
“We have a state spending problem, and we have a local spending problem,” he said. “I would say it is more serious at the local level. It is out of control.”
Still, in one point of agreement, Sidamon-Eristoff said much of the problem rests in the budget hole left by more than $1 billion in one-time federal stimulus money that went to state aid last year under former Gov. Jon Corzine.
“That’s the money that’s disappeared, and put us in so much trouble,” he said. “It is not coming back in 2011, 2012, 2013. It’s gone.”
Republicans were more supportive of the new treasurer, with several applauding him and the new governor for taking the necessary steps to stem both state and local spending.
Still, it was one Republican veteran of the committee who probably summed up the mood best in his greetings to Sidamon-Aristoff, reminding everyone that today’s testimony is surely just the beginning of a long budget debate in Trenton.
"Welcome to the budget hearings, Mr. Treasurer,” said Assemblyman Joseph malone, R-Burlington. “It will be an interesting couple of months for you.”
Sidamon-Eristoff’s appearance capped a busy day for the budget committee, which spent more than two hours in the morning receiving the latest state revenue forecasts from David Rosen, finance director of the non-partisan Office of Legislative Affairs. (View revenue forecast.)
Among a litany of numbers that are sure to change well into the spring and even maybe summer, Rosen said that any economic recovery remains slow-going in the state and 2010 revenues remain well below those of previous years.
The most notable number was Rosen’s projection that sales tax revenues will actually be $250 million less than what even Christie’s budget has forecasted for this and next year, likely causing still more pain for the governor and legislature to address in the coming months.
Rosen downplayed the gap with Christie’s forecasts, saying it remains less than 1 percent of the overall revenue totals.
“It’s reasonable people coming to different conclusions,” he said. “But from a budgeting perspective, $250 million is still a big deal.”