HOPEWELL TOWNSHIP – School aid remains the focus of budget talks in Trenton, where Gov. Chris Christie says he confident there will be a spending plan in place by next week’s deadline despite disagreement about how to proceed over school funding.

Christie talked with reporters outside Capital Health Medical Center, where he was highlighting a transportation project that will improve nearby Interstate 95, before returning to the capital to meet with Democratic legislative leaders about their proposed $171 million in school-aid changes.

Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-Gloucester, has said the Legislature won’t pass a budget until they reach agreement with Christie on school funding changes – even if that means shutting down state government if the new fiscal year opens July 1 without a spending plan in place.

Christie said he doesn’t think things will come to that.

“I don’t think that the Democrats would be that irresponsible, nor that politically stupid to close down the government in an election year,” Christie said. “Because remember of all the people who could make this decision, I’m the only one who’s not up for election, so I don’t know why they would do that. But I just don’t believe that will happen, so I’m not worried about it.”

Democrats want to make changes to school aid that would give 380 school districts more aid than promised in March but cut state aid for 126 districts.

The plan adds $100 million to the school aid formula and redistributes $46 million away from districts that have lost enrollment or increased in wealth since the funding formula was last followed eight years ago. It also adds $25 million to expand full-day preschool to more districts.

“There’s things about it that I find encouraging. There’s things I find about it discouraging and unfair. And so we’ll have to see what we’re going to do,” Christie said.

While three-fourths of legislative districts gain aid under the plan, including some represented in Trenton by Republicans, the biggest winners are Democratic areas. Just one of the 39 lawmakers in districts with the biggest gains are Republicans.

“If you just look at the numbers of where money is going and how it’s distributed, it raises some questions, and I want those questions answered,” Christie said.

All 16 Republican senators signed a letter to Christie delivered Tuesday urging him to reject the Democrats' proposed aid changes.

"While we support the additional funding for the underfunded school districts as we have called for, there are major flaws to this scheme," said the letter, in which the senators say changes should focus on extraordinary special education aid and that no districts should lose aid for 2017-18 because budgets and staffing have already been set.

Christie said incremental change on school funding is all that’s possible in the short term, given that Democrats dominate the Senate and Assembly – and that’s not going to change soon, under the map of legislative districts adopted in 2011 that strongly favors the Democrats.

“Unless and until Republicans get a majority in the Legislature, there is no way for us to change it,” Christie said. “We could play around the edges of the funding formula, but you can’t get rid of the funding formula unless you get a Republican majority in the Legislature.”

After the 2020 Census, the legislative districts will be redrawn to rebalance their populations.

Christie said that map will determine whether Republicans have an opportunity to retake the Legislature. He said the tiebreaker on the commission that adopted the current map, the late professor Alan Rosenthal, told him the current map would allow the GOP to win the Legislature if Christie won re-election with 60 percent of the vote – which he did, but the party didn’t.

“Choosing that wrong map certainly changed the course of this administration and has changed the course of history in the state,” Christie said.

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Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5 and the editor of New Jersey: Decoded. Follow @NJDecoded on Twitter and Facebook. Contact him at michael.symons@townsquaremedia.com

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