Budget dealing is far from done in New Jersey
Gov. Chris Christie has proposed a $33.8 billion State Budget that keeps funding essentially flat for schools, higher education, municipalities and property tax relief programs. But the spending plan will not be adopted as is, because budgets never are.
The budget introduced Tuesday will likely be tweaked and changed along the way before the midnight, June 30 constitutional deadline for a signed and balanced budget.
"It's the beginning of the process, but this speech was not really a budget speech," said Assembly Speaker Vinnie Prieto (D-Secaucus) who lamented the lack of specifics in the governor's address.
In the next few weeks, the Senate and Assembly budget committees will take testimony from the public around the state on the impact of the budget. The panels will also grill each of Christie's cabinet commissioners and agency chiefs at least twice as they dissect each department's budget in an effort to find savings. The hearing schedules have not yet been released.
"This is day one of the most significant document that the government works on each year which is the budget. This is a long process. There are not going to be answers as we stand here today," Assembly Majority Leader Lou Greenwald (D-Voorhees) said Tuesday.
Some budget adjustments will happen in the open while others will occur behind closed doors with the public only learning specifics after the fact. The governor and lawmakers often barter privately with some items. It is not uncommon for a legislator or governor to propose something they know will never happen because of the cost, only to later scrap the idea in exchange for something they truly want.
This year differs from previous years in two areas in terms of budget negotiations: pension reform and transportation funding. A judge has ruled that the Christie Administration must make full payments into the public employees' pension system. The administration has filed an appeal, but if the ruling stands, the state would owe almost $1.6 billion for this fiscal year and roughly $3 billion for FY 2016. Christie proposed a $1.3 billion contribution in FY 2016.
The Transportation Trust Fund is on pace to run out of money for anything but debt service June 30. Legislators and a coalition of advocates have called for a funding source that would generate a minimum of $1.6 billion annually. A gas tax increase is the most talked about solution. In his budget address, the governor made no mention of the TTF's looming insolvency.
Added to the mix this year is Christie's presidential aspirations. If the governor tosses his hat in the ring for 2016 he would have to travel extensively. That possibility had at least one Democratic leader concerned.
"The problem we have is that we need a governor that is in the state of New Jersey long enough and focused enough to actually hear the concerns of the constituencies the proposals and the ideas that we present," Greenwald said.
The out-of-state argument is one the much-traveled Christie has heard often. He has said he can govern the state from anywhere.