Christie presents $32.9 billion budget
TRENTON - A combative Gov. Christie offered a largely noncontroversial, $32.9 billion budget Tuesday that accepts a key provision of the federal health-care law, abandons his proposal for an income-tax cut, and slightly boosts funding for education.
"Fiscal sanity has indeed returned to Trenton," the Republican governor declared during an election year address before the Legislature, in which he both jabbed Democrats and touted bipartisanship.
Beyond Christie's decision to save the state $227 million by expanding Medicaid under Obamacare, the most notable element of the budget may be something he didn't mention: Delaying a property tax rebate known as the homestead benefit until August.
By waiting to send the rebate until after the new fiscal year begins July 1, Christie seeks to close a deficit of more than $400 million for the current fiscal year. Christie forecast huge revenue increases that have not been realized, so holding off buys him time.
Christie also is counting on $125 million from the privatization of the state lottery. He has not signed that deal, but officials are in closed-door negotiations with the winning bidder.
Unlike in Pennsylvania, where Democratic Attorney General Kathleen Kane has refused to approve Republican Gov. Corbett's lottery privatization plan, Christie is not required to offer his plan for review. Christie's treasurer has refused to discuss it publicly with the Legislature.
As Christie has done before, he plans to divert $152 million from a clean-energy program funded through a charge on utility bills into the general fund. The program provides, for example, rebates on weatherization and high-efficiency appliances.
Environmentalists said it was particularly egregious to cut the program when so many are struggling to rebuild after Sandy. They also were angry about $13.5 million that Christie proposes slashing from the Department of Environmental Protection, the largest percentage cut of any state agency.
Christie's budget banks on $166 million from towns' affordable housing trust funds, but that money might not be available. The state Supreme Court is considering a challenge to his efforts to take the money for the general fund.
Christie officials stressed that just 3 percent of the budget is based on one-shot revenue sources such as these, compared with 13 percent four years ago. But the spending plan's granular details are not yet available.
Since there was no single controversial proposal in this budget, Democratic reaction was muted. Democrats said they wished Christie had restored the earned-income tax credit for the working poor, or announced plans to address the state's foreclosure crisis and high property taxes.
Christie's main Democratic opponent in November, State Sen. Barbara Buono (D., Middlesex), said Christie failed to address job creation even though the state's 9.6 percent unemployment rate has barely moved since he came into office. "People are hurting and this governor has turned a blind eye and deaf ear to them," Buono said. "Somebody has got to stand up for the middle class."
Over the next several months, Democrats will closely examine the budget through hearings and discussion with the treasurer. They then will adopt his budget or offer a plan of their own, which Christie can line-item veto or sign by June 30.
In his 45-minute remarks, Christie seamlessly moved from lambasting Democrats to high-minded talk of recovery after Sandy. He will seek to set aside $40 million as a contingency for Sandy victims if insurance and federal relief money does not cover costs.
"I expect to go to the Jersey Shore every summer for the rest of my life, including this summer," Christie said.
Christie also is reserving $3 million to protect the state from possible federal funding cuts known as the sequester.
Christie opened the pocketbook for programs he has championed. Since Democrats blocked a law that would have given tax breaks to businesses that pay for students in failing districts to attend school elsewhere, Christie announced $2 million for a pilot scholarship program for 200 students.
The state's schools would get $97.3 million in additional funds, with no districts slated for a cut. Higher education is in line for a slight increase, with Rowan University slated for a 5 percent hike.
And business groups cheered that Christie would continue corporate tax cuts.
Christie also will abide by the pension reform bill he signed in 2011 by offering $1.7 billion for the struggling pension fund, the largest such payment in state history, he said.
Christie chided Democratic opposition to his across-the-board income-tax cut proposal from last year, which Democrats said the state could not afford. While the new budget does not fund an income-tax cut, Christie said that if Democrats agreed to his proposal, he would find a way to work it into his budget.
That is unlikely to come up again.
Instead, it is the expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, which will cover tens of thousands of poor New Jerseyans, that will be the most scrutinized part of this budget. It goes to the most controversial national issue of the last few years, Obamacare, and the politics of the 2016 GOP presidential primary, in which Christie may be a contender.
As he often does, Christie gave a wink to his political future and spoke of how national leaders should emulate him.
"It's past time for Washington to get its act together," he said. "That will take two things: Bipartisanship and leadership. Unfortunately, both seem missing in Washington today."