TRENTON - Democrats reacted immediately and harshly to Gov. Christie's budget speech yesterday, arguing that the budget changes he presented will harm the state's middle class and that he appears to have abandoned already any plans for bipartisanship.
Several said Christie should have worked more closely with the Legislature to fill the budget shortfall.
"So much for a handshake," said Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester), referring to Christie's handshake with the two top Legislative leaders, both Democrats, during his inaugural address.
Sweeney said Democratic lawmakers did not receive any real information about what the governor planned until less than an hour before the speech was to begin.
"You don't govern by executive order, you govern by working together," Sweeney said. "Executive orders are when you're not willing to work with people."
Some Democrats questioned whether Christie has the authority to make all of the changes he declared.
"One must even question the legality of the governor's executive order," said Senate Majority Leader Barbara Buono (D., Middlesex). "It would appear that he is using the pretext of a fiscal emergency to try and exceed his executive powers, to act as a legislative body and rewrite this year's budget by making school aid cuts; raiding various funds; and authorizing additional spending.
"This is akin to imposing martial law, a far cry from his pledge of cooperation on Inauguration Day."
Assemblyman Gary Schaer (D., Passaic) predicted Christie's budget cuts would result in higher property taxes. "By proposing massive cuts on local school districts and to our colleges, residents of my district and all of New Jersey will face further steep hikes in property taxes and tuition at specifically the time when they simply have had enough," Schaer said.
Cuts to health care and education also drew strong reactions.
Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D., Bergen) said she was concerned about cutting charity-care aid, which helps hospitals pay for care for the uninsured.
Christie said he would cut $12.6 million in state funding for charity care, which means hospitals would lose the same amount in matching federal funding. Cuts of such magnitude, Weinberg said, would "shift the burden of responsibility onto the back of the state's already-struggling hospitals."
"The results of such a large cut will be less services for the uninsured, more hospitals closing their doors, and an increase in cost on those New Jerseyans who do have health insurance and subsidize care for those who do not," Weinberg said.
Assemblywoman Pamela Lampitt (D., Camden) said cuts of $62.1 million to public colleges and universities were shortsighted.
"No matter how you approach it, these proposed higher education cuts will make it that much harder for New Jersey to recover from the economic recession both now and for years to come," Lampitt said.
Republicans had a far different take.
Senate Minority Leader Thomas H. Kean Jr. said Christie's budget plan, "unlike proposals by other governors over the last eight years, contains no unconstitutional borrowing, tax increases, or irresponsible accounting gimmicks."
Contact staff writer Adrienne Lu at 609-989-8990 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Inquirer staff writer Jonathan Tamari contributed to this article.