A full version of this story will appear in tomorrow's Inquirer and on Philly.com
HAMMONTON, N.J. - When the governor called on the “guy with gray hair and a moustache,” and the man announced himself as a school superintendent in Stratford, a murmur went through the crowd.
Was another one of Gov. Christie’s famous fights with educators brewing this afternoon at this town hall meeting in rural New Jersey?
Nope. “First I want to say we very much appreciate that you increased school state aid this year,” Superintendent Albert K. Brown said.
Stratford, a Camden County district that gets about half of its $10 million budget from the state, saw a 2 percent increase in aid this year, and Brown said the additional money will help him avoid raising taxes. After cutting $820 million in state education funding last year, Christie is now proposing to restore $250 million for the next school year.
But, Brown wondered, what about a recent report, commissioned by the state Supreme Court, that found last year’s aid cuts to students unconstitutional? If the court orders more money to go back to poor, at-risk districts, Brown reasoned, then the governor would have to take away funds from suburban districts like his.
“You put your finger on the defining issue of affordability in New Jersey,” Christie said.
Christie was armed for the question, and used a cheat-sheet to wow the standing-room only crowd with some statistics. The average state aid for so-called Abbott districts in poor towns is $16,138 per student; the average amount of state aid for the rest of the state’s districts is $2,895.
“That being said, the Abbott districts are a failure academically,” Christie said. So, he asked, why throw more money at the problem?
In his most expansive remarks yet on the issue, Christie vowed to challenge the advisory report in the Supreme Court to keep his school funding formula intact. Otherwise, he speculated, he would have to cut all funding to hospitals, forcing some to close, and cut all state aid for towns, driving up property taxes.
“I don’t know, I’m a pretty simple guy, and I’m not a genius, but this is crazy,” he said. “So we’re going to fight in the Supreme court on behalf of the taxpayers. We can’t print money in the state of New Jersey.”
Christie said he would not, despite pleas from some Democratic circles, raise taxes on the rich, saying it would kill job creation and wouldn’t bring in enough money anyay.
As Christie held his town hall in the sunny atrium of the new office building for New Jersey Manufacturers Insurance Group - with about 600 people packed in and many more watching from an overflow room - his state treasurer appeared at an Assembly budget hearing in Trenton.
Treasurer Andrew Sidamon-Eristoff told the Assembly Budget and Appropriations Committee that state revenues are projected to grow $1.2 billion in the 2012 fiscal year that starts in July, and will come in slightly higher than anticipated for the current fiscal year.
Still, he cautioned, "we have very long way to go" before revenues return to their peak year of 2008.
Exchanges between lawmakers and Sidamon-Eristoff grew tense at times, as they went back and forth on education funding, healthcare, property taxes and a proposal by some Democrats to renew a surcharge on millionaires.
Echoing his boss, Sidamon-Eristoff rejected the possibility of a budget that restores the so-called millionaire’s tax.
“History teaches us that tax increases in New Jersey never close deficits, they simply fuel more spending,” he said. “That cycle has no place in the New Normal.”
The treasurer provided few answers to Democrats’ questions about Christie's proposal to save $300 million by applying for a federal waiver to change the state’s Medicaid program. Sidamon-Eristoff said health officials are working on the application and will be reaching out to stakeholders.
Budget Chairman Lou Greenwald (D., Camden) criticized the administration for not doing enough to address the state’s highest-in-the-nation property taxes, noting that property taxes increased 24 percent in South Jersey last year after rebates were suspended and aid cut.
But Sidamon-Eristoff called on lawmakers to adopt Christie's so-called tool-kit of proposals, like changing the civil service system, to help local governments keep spending in check.
Back in Hammonton, Christie said the other obstacle to fixing the state’s fiscal situation was the Supreme Court: “Those people, who are not elected by anyone and are not elected to be making laws, are making laws from the bench....They’re directing how money is supposed to be spent by the people that you elect to make those decisions, the Legislature and the governor.”
He said the way to fix the Supreme Court is to get his nominee for the court, Anne Paterson, confirmed. But State Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester), has not held a nomination hearing for her, which Christie said was “shameful.”
“Everybody in this room who is a constituent of Sen. Sweeney should leave here today and call his district office and say, ‘Enough is enough,’” Christie said.
“If he wants to pick Supreme Court justices, run for governor and beat me.”
Sweeney and the Democrats are angry that Christie bucked precedent when he announced he would not reappoint Justice John Wallace Jr.
“This issue is and will always only be about the governor’s decision to remove Justice Wallace’s moderate and respected voice from the Court for purely political reasons,” said Derek Roseman, a Sweeney spokesman.
“It is beyond irony that he continues to call for a hearing on his nominee when he was so unwilling to extend that same basic courtesy to Justice Wallace. The Senate President considers this a closed matter, as he did the day the governor decided to toss aside the entire concept of an independent judiciary.”