Does Christie budget cut spending? That depends . . .

TRENTON - Gov. Christie delivered a familiar message at a town-hall meeting in Hammonton on Tuesday when he told an admiring crowd, "We're cutting spending again this year by 2.6 percent in the budget I proposed."

That same day, an analyst with the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services offered lawmakers in Trenton a very different view of the $29.4 billion state spending plan that Christie introduced last month.

"There's an increase in state spending," David Rosen, the legislative budget and finance officer for OLS, told the Assembly Budget Committee.

The Republican governor has been touting his latest spending reduction on national television and at his popular town halls. But the administration would have raised state spending 3.8 percent - or $1.1 billion - for fiscal 2012 had it not relied on budget maneuvers to increase the current fiscal year's spending and decrease next year's total:

Christie included $876 million in nonrecurring federal stimulus money in calculating the 2011 state budget total, though state budgets typically did not include federal funding before the stimulus package was awarded in 2009.

He proposed making a $506 million pension contribution required for the 2012 budget in 2011 instead, on the condition that legislators vote for his plans to change employee pension benefits. Shifting the pension burden to 2011 then reduced the next year's budget by $506 million.

Without those moves, state spending would have increased from $28.8 billion to $29.9 billion, which is slightly higher than spending in the 2010 fiscal year under Christie's predecessor, Democrat Jon S. Corzine. Christie's 2011 adjusted spending is lower than Corzine's in 2010 only when federal stimulus money is included in both years. His proposed 2012 budget is lower than state spending in 2010 because of the shifted pension payment.

Andy Pratt, a spokesman for the Treasury Department, said the administration's calculations were responsible.

"There's no question that this is the absolute right way to account for this," he said. "The accounting is 100 percent sound. There's no trickery."

The administration's methods are defensible, said Rosen.

"There are different ways of characterizing [spending], and I think individuals often choose a way of characterizing it that conforms with their message," he told legislators.

In an address to the Democratic-controlled Legislature last month, Christie said he was reducing the size of the budget "in actual dollars."

On MSNBC the day after his budget address, Christie told the Morning Joe show: "Spending is lower this year in our budget than it was last year because we're cutting out the underbrush."

And at a town hall in Hopatcong this month, he said: "The budget that we put forward this year once again cuts spending."

Some lawmakers voiced concern that Christie was giving residents the wrong impression.

During Tuesday's Assembly hearings, Budget Committee Chairman Louis Greenwald (D., Camden) called the pension-payment shift an attempt to fool residents.

Assemblywoman Bonnie Watson Coleman (D., Mercer) said the administration was comparing apples to oranges by factoring in federal stimulus money.

"We are actually misleading the general public," she said.

While Rosen said federal funding was normally counted separately from the state budget, Pratt said the stimulus money should be included because Corzine had used it to cover programs in the budget that previously had been paid for with state revenue.

"This stimulus aid is a completely different type of revenue," said Pratt.

Rosen told the Senate and Assembly budget committees this week that a state spending increase was possible because revenue was expected to grow $1.1 billion in 2012, and that would more than offset the loss of federal stimulus money for Medicaid.

The Assembly budget panel also heard from Treasurer Andrew Sidamon-Eristoff, who said the administration acknowledged that the reduced spending was largely because of anticipation of an early pension payment.

Christie, like some of his predecessors, skipped a $3.1 billion pension payment in the current year's budget to help close a revenue shortfall.

A law he signed shortly after taking office requires the state to contribute $506 million - one-seventh of what actuaries recommend - to the troubled retirement fund in 2012.

Sidamon-Eristoff said that though the administration was not committed to making another pension payment in 2012, "I think a bill paid early is one that is well-paid and well-received."

Noting that the math was laid out in the budget, the treasurer said: "We're not in any way hiding this."


Contact staff writer Maya Rao at 609-989-8990 or mrao@phillynews.com.

Inquirer staff writer Matt Katz contributed to this article.